KUALA LUMPUR, April 5 — This year, the World Barista Championship will take place on April 9 in Seattle, USA. A momentous occasion on any other year but this year also happens to be the first time a Malaysian will join the fray. The current Malaysia Barista Champion, Jason Loo, has a lot of hopes and expectations riding on his shoulders.
Jason first entered the coffee industry when he joined The Red Beanbag three years ago as a trainee barista. Lee Yew Kheong, one of the founders of the café recalls, “I remember how shy he was before, but he has really grown into his own. Now he’s more confident, especially after winning his first Malaysia Barista Championship in 2013. Now he has taken over the role of training our new baristas.”
The barista champion, who is now the head barista of the café, takes his responsibility as a trainer seriously. “I have to guide my juniors so that they develop a genuine interest to learn more about coffee,” he says.
Hai Lin Lee, Yew Kheong’s wife and business partner, is impressed with how Jason has risen up to the challenge of “re-training” new baristas. She explains, “Many newbie baristas, especially the younger generation have a fixed mind set of what a good barista is. This typically involves a latte art fixation. Jason understands that the hunger to learn is the most important trait that we look out for, not the ones who think that they know it all.”
Yew Kheong adds, “Jason took ownership of the espresso bar at The Red Beanbag and manages it impeccably. The flow of the bar has vastly improved; for example, where the baristas should stand, and where to reach for the milk for foaming. He has taught his juniors that it’s not about manning the espresso machine immediately, but learning every aspect of the bar operations.”
Managing a café isn’t the same as preparing for a barista competition though, much less the biggest one of them all — the World Barista Championship. Where does one start?
“We always begin with the coffee beans,” says Jason. “I have been working with Joey Mah of Three Little Birds Coffee to select the best possible beans that fit my personality and story. This means both the type and origin of the beans as well as their roasting profiles.”
Without giving away too much, he confirms that he will be using two types of Central American coffee beans. A Geisha varietal will be used for the espresso, specifically roasted for the World Barista Championship to be sweeter and easier to detect its bright notes.
For the cappuccino, a mixed varietal of Geisha and Typica beans (i.e. two different beans from the same lot) will be employed. These beans are roasted differently from the ones for espresso to allow the coffee to stand up to the milk.
Jason’s signature drink for the World Barista Championship remains a closely guarded secret. A little bird tells me that it may not be too dissimilar to his offering at this year’s Malaysia Barista Championship, which paired a shot of espresso with an ice-cube made from Evian water and three syringes of syrups (green apple and strawberry for acidity and complexity; wild honey for sweetness; and Earl Grey tea for a subtle bitterness).
How do these beans get selected though? Coffee roaster Joey Mah explains, “We always have a few beans in mind when we start. The main question is ‘What do we want to achieve in telling our coffee story?’ You see, all beans can be roasted to achieve balance but if the coffee is too balanced, then it will lose its character. Therefore we have to find one strong enough in character so that we can roast it to be balanced while still retaining a lot of flavours.”
According to Joey, there are a lot of other factors to create a perfect cup but what both baristas and roasters need is to improve their tasting ability. “Most baristas know how to do the technical stuff like pulling a shot and foaming milk, but if you don’t know how to taste, you will be unable to understand and contribute to the roasting and bean buying processes. It’s the same for me as a roaster. If you cannot taste what you roast, how can you help your barista?”
This is where even a competition barista needs a coach and Jason has chosen Joey as his mentor with the blessings of his biggest supporters, namely Yew Kheong and Lin Lee. The two have seen Jason improve by leaps and bounds over the years.
“I remember we were still guiding Jason during the period leading up to his first Malaysia Barista Championship,” says Lin Lee. “By the time he started training for this year’s competition, we had nothing left to teach him. Instead he was the one teaching us new things!”
For Jason, training with Joey has been rewarding. “He has challenged me to go outside my comfort zone. For example, he wanted me to brew using a V60 coffee brewer and to learn to sell its characteristics. The way I present, the word choice — it all matters! I didn’t expect this; I thought my training would begin with bean selection or calibrating the espresso machine. This really opened my eyes to what coffee can convey.”
The learning process worked both ways as the coach also learned from his student. Joey says, “Jason is very knowledgeable about scoring and other technical aspects of barista competitions that I knew nothing about. Honestly, I didn’t realise how quickly one needs to be in thinking; when you change one thing, a lot of other variables has to be changed too. We had to figure out new ways to save time and make it easier for Jason in the 15 minutes allocated.”
Despite his busy training schedule, Jason is juggling more projects than ever before. On top of his duties at The Red Beanbag, he has recently launched Yellow Brick Road at Jalan Batai, a true labour of love. (Yew Kheong and Lin Lee are two of his partners in crime in this new café venture; the fourth is former Monin executive Shaun Liew.)
Few in the coffee industry know about Jason’s background as a pastry chef. He still dabbles via his cake company One Ate Zero, which he runs with his girlfriend Claire Diong. “We supply cakes to various cafés including The Red Beanbag and Yellow Brick Road. Claire is in charge of production. The name ‘One Ate Zero’ refers to 180 degrees, one of the most common baking temperatures.”
Meanwhile, the recent tasting sessions (held at Joey’s Three Little Birds Coffee training facility) of the coffee he will be using at the World Barista Championship were completely sold out. The inseparable coffee duo of Jason and Joey is now contemplating their secret ingredient for Jason’s signature drink at the World Barista Championship. (Hint: it might well be wild honey harvested in the mountainous regions of China, brought back by fine tea purveyor Akira Hojo specifically for their experiments.)
Where does he find time to even prepare for the World Barista Championship? Jason says, “It’s about preparing diligently but realising that there are some things that are not in our control. Once the work is done, what’s left to do is to get up there on the stage and enjoy myself. Hopefully my results will reflect the hard work we put in.”
I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the words of champion to me.
Enjoy the excellent brews Jason, Yew Kheong, Lin Lee, and Joey are serving at:
The Red Beanbag
A4-1-08, Solaris Dutamas, Jalan Dutamas 1,
Open Tue-Thu 10am-10pm; Fri 10am-12am; Sat 9:30am-12am; Sun 9:30am-10pm;
Three Little Birds Coffee @D7
D7, Jalan Sentul, Sentul,
Open Mon-Thu 8am-11pm; Fri-Sat 8am-12am;
Yellow Brick Road
8-7, Jalan Batai, Damansara Heights, Kuala Lumpur
Open daily 9am-6pm