There’s a malt-like aroma that wafts through the air whenever the weekend rolls around at Dil Coffee Trail. Its the smell of coffee and it is just one of the many varieties of specialty coffee that are available at this home-based cafe.
As customers start to trickle in, you will see the coffee connoisseur and owner Shaikh Fadilah Ahmad behind the small kitchen bar, slaving away at the professional-grade coffee machine or coffee grinder, greeting his patrons with a smile.
Known endearingly by the regulars as just Dil, the 55-year-old is eclectic to say the least, often found in a loud Hawaiian shirt as he fervently describes the various flavour profiles, aromas and localities of his coffee beans to his clientele.
Dil is not merely a self-made barista however, with the retired civil servant being an accomplished baker as well, dazzling the uninitiated with his mouth-watering decadent bakes that are made to match the expertly brewed cuppas.
What began as a mere passion project to share the love of coffee has now developed into a bustling business for Dil, an unexpected outcome for the husband and father of four, one that stemmed from a simple barista course he took more than a decade ago.
The beginnings of a barista
“It all started with coffee but to be honest, I was not a coffee drinker in the beginning,” Dil admitted.
After completing his masters exams while in-service at the Australian National University in 2008, Dil played around with the idea of acquiring a new skill, one that could be developed into a hobby more than anything else.
“I was travelling about Australia and in Sydney, I chanced upon a two-day course at the Sydney Coffee School, so I picked it up, never realising how it would impact my life now,” he explained.
From the history of coffee, using an espresso machine, texturing milk to the care and maintenance of coffee machines and grinders, Dil was pulled through the ringer having been exposed to coffee concepts that he was never privy to.
“Unfortunately, even though I was imbued with this new knowledge, I did not practice it for a while,” said the certified barista, only putting the knowledge into practice in 2015, when he bought his first coffee machine.
“I didn’t have time to work on my coffee back then, due to work commitments,” Dil explained, however with his retirement fast approaching at the time, he felt it opportune to revisit the skills that he acquired seven years prior.
“Once you’re about to reach retirement, there are a number of options you can go with. I was actually offered a job, but I had no interest, instead, I chose to pursue a hobby, which was coffee”.
Road to the Dil Coffee Trail
Dil Coffee Trail gained traction as a business only in 2019, the year of his retirement, and at this point the coffee connoisseur had travelled the world tasting the different blends of coffee each country had to offer.
From Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the United Kingdom, Dil detailed his coffee travels on his Instagram account, which was established the year prior, to provide a platform to share his love of coffee and coffee knowledge with those who are of the same mind.
Dil would eventually amass his own collection of specialty coffee beans throughout his travels, to brew at the comfort of his own home and to share the experience with his followers.
“There was never any intention to start a business, but my followers kept asking if I sold any of my home brews (and) that gave me indication of interest, which in turn led me to actually want to sell them, to start a business,” he said.
Emboldened by the demand, Dil started organising pop ups and pick-ups on the weekend during 2019, gradually building a name for himself within Brunei’s coffee scene.
This new-found popularity however did not come from his specialty coffee alone, but also from his warm hospitality and the rising star of Dil Coffee Trail; the burnt cheesecake which was only introduced in May of last year, during Ramadhan.
“I participated in the Big BWN Project’s Sahur Saturday at the Kontena Park. I was serving coffee, made cupcakes, sold a bunch of things.
“Then I thought about making the burnt cheesecake, because it was one of those trending foods. I would bake often for family events, and burnt cheesecakes are one of those cakes that you would enjoy with coffee, so I thought I’d give it a go.
“The cakes sold out quickly, and by the third week, I had a long queue waiting for me. The first time it has ever happened”.
Coffee cakes, a family affair
“I have probably sold almost a thousand cheesecakes since Raya last year, now I get about 20 or so orders of the burnt cheesecake in a week, it really has been a hit since it debuted during Ramadhan,” said Dil.
The burnt cheesecake, according to Dil is what has propelled Dil Coffee Trail beyond just serving specialty coffee, but also a coffee-going experience that is sure to ignite the curiousities of coffee connoisseurs and casual coffee lovers alike.
From his beautifully decorated rose, lychee and pistachio cake, to the uniquely flavoured chocolate chili mudcake, each of his baked creations can be enjoyed and actually compliments, his wide collection of coffee beans.
Coffee pairings, he called them, meant to deliver a memorable coffee-going experience, where one can help highlight the flavour profiles or ‘notes’ of the other; whether it be the berry-like notes of Ehiopian coffee beans, the orangey chocolate notes of Rowanda, or the blackcurrant likeness of Kenya.
Unlike his barista skills, baking came naturally to Dil, one that was nurtured within him since he was a child, cultivated unknowingly by his late mother Hjh Sharifah Maimunah, a significant figure in the realm of cookery for the residents of Kuala Belait.
“I grew up around baking and my mother, she was very popular for her culinary abilities. She always taught people how to cook, had a cooking show for RTB (in the late 70s) and even wrote a few cookbooks,” he said.
“She would bake biscuits during Ramadhan, and my siblings and I would always help her out, we kind of acted like a factory line, each assigned with a specific task,” he added.
Dil had a strong relationship with his late mother, despite being one of eight children.
With the late Hjh Sharifah Maimunah often imploring him for his baked goods once he had a family of his own and moved away from Kuala Belait.
“I think she is the inspiration for my baking. I would always be there watching her cook but one of my biggest regrets is never picking up her other cooking skills”.
Now, Dil is often seen trying out new baking recipes.
Whether at the behest of his clients or inspired from social media trends, the certified barista and self-taught baker is always ready to put his own spin to the otherwise western style cakes and confectioneries that is available at Dil Coffee Trail.
Whats to come
When asked what the future holds for Dil Coffee Trail, especially with the rapid momentum the establishment has gone through over the past few years, the retiree said that he is content, and is actually reprehensive about growing bigger.
“I don’t want to be one of those cafes where there is no interaction with the baristas, where customers just buy their drinks and sit down.”
“Part and parcel of being barista is to help their customers discover what they love, help them pinpoint their preferences and actually enhance their experience”.
He is however, determined on growing his own skills, undergoing a globally recognised barista course from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, hoping his expertise would push him ahead of Brunei’s over saturated coffee shop market.
“It may be a saturated market, but no matter how many cafes pop up, if yours is the best, people will keep coming back. The important thing is we try our best, because the worst thing is not try at all”.
The Bruneian | BRUNEI-MUARA