Sip Blog

Written by coffee lovers, for coffee lovers

Humans of Sip: Interview with Glen Ho from Prodigal Roasters

His very first roast was done using a popcorn popper. Everyone has to start somewhere, and Glen, who now owns and runs Prodigal Roasters in Yio Chu Kang, is no exception. When I first started, there weren't a lot of roasting classes around, and those available were expensive, he shared. So what led him to start roasting his own beans?

All smiles! Owner of Prodigal Roasters, Glen Ho

I met a roaster from Urban Coffee Roasters in Hong Kong, he said, and was inspired by his courage and passion towards roasting different types of coffee in spite of the high costs involved in getting green coffee beans. Hence I decided to go for it. I thought to myself: Even if I mess this up, I'll continue to roast.

While his initial roasts turned out well, Glen soon realized that the popcorn popper was unsuited for roasting certain varieties of beans. He decided to invest in a proper roaster and bought one after his stint at Assembly Coffee. When asked why he left the job, he replied that [it] was all about learning the ropes of business and very little about roasting, which is my first love.

Glen's barista skills at work.

Glen went on to roast coffee at home for a year, learning most of his techniques from roasting forums1. He credits a competition held by the Huky 500 forum - which required each participant to roast a certain blend of coffee, save the roast profile2, and send the beans for tasting - with improving his knowledge and skills.

As he recalls, We got to look at the profiles of the three best tasting roasts and analyse why they tasted better. This gave me a clearer picture of what I could do to improve my own coffee.

As someone who is always wanting to find out more, Glen constantly seeks challenges. This sparked his decision to learn roasting, which was [the] furthest thing he could learn, and led to him deciding to open a cafe. Eventually, he said, I realized there is so much more for me to explore and learn about coffee.

Recognise the person in this logo?

Glen recounted two incidents that deeply inspired him. The first was at Bear Pond Espresso, a specialty coffee house in Tokyo, Japan. When the owner made him a concentrated cup of espresso, he had expected it to taste bitter. It turned out to be sweet and syrupy, which totally blew my mind, he said. The second incident was at LiLo Coffee Roasters in Osaka, where he tried a drink that was the exact opposite: an espresso brewed for a much shorter time3. Expecting it to taste sour and watery, he was surprised that it turned out to be the best espressoai he had ever had.

Their coffee broke the laws of everything I'd learnt in Singapore as a barista, he said. They inspired me to open a cafe of my own.

Prodigal Roasters was therefore brought into being on August 19th last year. This minimalistic yet homey cafe has delighted Yio Chu Kang residents with their coffee and sweet treats ever since, with their miso cheese tart being a huge crowd-favourite at the Singapore Coffee Festival this year.

Sweet, comforting treats. (From left to right: scones, miso cheese tart)

The coffee served at Prodigal Roasters is always worth revisiting as Glen uses different beans almost every month. He is keen on continuing to explore new blends of coffee, and hopes that this will be a treat for customers' taste buds as well. Looking back at his roasting journey, Glen feels lucky to have had the chance to roast a variety of coffee beans - sourced from more than twelve regions including Rwanda and Guatemala - and the freedom to choose what he wanted to learn.

Glen's favourite blend is a Myanmese coffee with an interesting backstory which he will soon bring in to serve at his cafe. This coffee exists because of a lady who did justice work in Myanmar, he said. She researched coffee-growing techniques for years, and convinced local farmers to only sell her good quality beans. It is due to her persistence that we have what Glen calls the miracle coffee, named so because [it is] quite impossible to get good quality Myanmese coffee.

There are also some special items on his menu with very interesting names. Enter 'Dirty', an espresso with cold milk served in a frozen cup. It's similar to Bear Pond Espresso's drink of the same name, described as black and thick, which gives off the impression of it being dirty. Don't be fooled by the coffee's appearance, it does not taste as strong as it looks. We keep the crema4 at the top, so that you will only taste the crema and milk on your first sip. This eases you into the drink, Glen explained.

The menu includes a trio of cold espresso drinks -- 'Magic', 'Tragic' and 'Logic', ranked in order of increasing espresso shots.

Cold drinks are served beer-bottle style. Adorable, right?

Although running a cafe can be very fruitful, Glen is all too aware of some of the challenges it poses. Initially conceptualising it as a takeaway cafe, he realised later on that the majority of his customers were spending more time in his cosy cafe. The number one thing I learnt from running an F&B business is that the number of seats you have is your asset, he said. Most people prefer sitting down. If I had known this, I would have allocated more seating space.

Nevertheless, he is grateful that his cafe has achieved its intended purpose. Our cafe has reached many people in the neighbourhood and allowed them to taste specialty coffee, he said. I've made lots of friends, hired great people - all these connections cannot be taken away lah. In all, this one year has been amazing.

Before concluding the interview, he left me with a parting thought. "By the way, do you know why I named Prodigal Roasters as such?" I made a guess that the Parable of the Prodigal Son had a part to play. Indeed, it had. "The word 'prodigal' has a bad connotation; it means 'wastefully extravagant'. However, it has a positive meaning to me. I feel that I've been the recipient of such 'extravagance', the same extravagance as what the Prodigal Son's father showered on him. I'm lucky to have received so much support from my family and friends, without whom, I wouldn't be where I am today. Because of this 'extravagance' shown towards me, I want to be equally extravagant toward my neighbourhood. When I first started the cafe, the best remarks I heard were, 'Wah, finally there's a cafe here!'. I hope to be a blessing to the people in this neighbourhood.

Prodigal Roasters just celebrated their one year Anniversary on Saturday, 19 August 2017. Sip wishes them a very happy birthday!

Prodigal Roasters
Blk 625 Ang Mo Kio Ave 9

Opening hours: 12pm - 10pm (all weekdays except Wednesday), 9am - 5pm (Saturday and Sunday), closed on Wednesday

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  1. Roasting forums are knowledge-sharing groups catered for a particular model of roaster.
  2. The roast profile is a record of the adjustments made during roasting, such as temperature and timing.
  3. The brewing time of espresso, measured in seconds, affects how much flavour is brought out in the coffee.
  4. Crema is the term for coffee oil.

Editor's note: It was previously stated that Prodigal Roasters' 'Dirty' was inspired by the 'Angel Stain' drink by Bear Pond Espresso. This is incorrect, as 'Dirty' was inspired by a Bear Pond Espresso drink of the same name. The article has been updated to reflect this change.