Keith Koay, the owner of One Half Coffee Bar, was in Amsterdam from 20th – 23rd June for the 2018 World Barista Championship (WBC); this is his second time representing the nation after his first win in 2016 Malaysia Barista Championship. Straight out of the oven, Keith shared his experience and thoughts in regards to competing in world and national barista championships.
: : Experiencing the World : :
It is a dream for most baristas to be able to represent their country in the world stage, to be able to showcase their coffee mastery and discovery. However, the journey is not as easy as it looks, it is not just about passion; the journey requires patience and determination.
The barista championship has always been the arena for baristas around the world to bring something new to the table; as minimal as exploring layers of customer service (the theme that has crowned Poland’s Agnieszka Rojewska the 2018 WBC Champion) to as deep as uncovering advanced brewing and farming technology. Keith saw that the annual WBC standard has kept going higher and higher each year. Based on his past experience, Keith said that he has to shift his focus on his signature drinks and the overall concept this time.
: : Ideas and Innovation : :
Having a great team to work with for the competition preparation is vital, and the 2016/2018 Malaysia Barista Champion has a solid one behind him – Jason Loo of Yellow Brick Road (7th in 2017 World Barista Championship) and Joey Mah of Artisan Roastery (WCE Certified Judge).
From their previous international exposures, they have collectively found that freshness of the coffee has always been the main issue when they were abroad as they couldn’t get the coffee to rest consistently due to travelling conditions, surrounding environment, and ambience.
Keith told that the common resting period for his coffees in his cafe is 16 days after roasting; but time was a luxury during the WBC. The Malaysian powerhouse team decided to explore a method that helps to age a fresh batch of coffee faster consistently by using a vacuum chamber and manipulating bar pressure during carbon dioxide removal.
This was the theme for his presentation which later expanded into how it had improved the flavours of his coffee during the competition. The Malaysia champ managed to deliver an astounding presentation, which has placed him 10th out of 55 champions from around the globe during the 2018 World Barista Championship Amsterdam!
: : The Fundamentals : :
Even though the world stage has witnessed a lot of new concepts and development in the coffee industry, Keith believed that coffee brewing skills should be the focus of Malaysian baristas in the national competitions.
He gave an example on a basic espresso calibration recipe, ‘‘Dosing 20 grams in, extracting 40 grams out. I need to be able to stop at 40 (grams), not at 41 or 39”. Keith felt that having a strong foundation is very important, as basic as getting precise shots, because a slight change in extraction will affect the flavours, tactile and taste balance of the beverage.
One of the obstacles during WBC that Keith faced was trying to hit the right descriptor and flavour notes for the international judges. Due to the different food and beverages people consumed around the world, what people perceive as flavours is different as well. His team future plan is to pursue into understanding the tasting notes from different parts of the world.
: : Coffee in Asia : :
Asian countries that managed to go to the 2018 WBC Semi-Finals Top 16 were Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, South Korea and Singapore. Keith was proud that in just four years of international experience, Malaysia has been in the semi-finals twice.
A positive growth in Asian coffee industry can be seen through the achievements of Hidenori Izaki of Japan (2014 WBC Champion) and Berg Wu of Taiwan (2017 WBC Champion). Still, Keith believed that there is ample space for Asian coffee industry to become better.
: : Competitions vs. Operations : :
There is also an on-going debate happening in the coffee world on whether new methods demonstrated in barista competitions are realistic enough to be applied in a café environment. Interestingly Keith has found it workable for him to train his staff based on his competition training.
He stated that in order to move forward, baristas need to get the fundamentals right especially in terms of coffee calibration, communication and customer service. “By understanding the coffee and its flavour notes, we are able to paint a picture of the coffee into customers’ experience easier,” he said.
: : Local Consumers : :
The specialty coffee has drastically changed the spectrum of coffee appreciation worldwide. It was once a battle for many baristas to break the chain of ‘coffee is bitter!’. But today, the coffee world has acknowledged that communication is an essential tool for baristas to deliver their craftsmanship. To keep things simple, Keith explained that One Half offers two different types of coffees and often engaged their customers into coffee conversations by asking, “chocolatey, nutty or fruity?”.
Keith stated “it is an approachable way to introduce specialty coffee”. You would know that the specialty coffee scene is evolving when you have a gentleman in his 60s asking for a cup of Natural Ethiopia.
: : To Compete or Not : :
Keith emphasised on three main factors that will make or break a barista in a competition – personal behaviour, technical skills and multitasking skills.
A good barista needs be humble and always on a learning mode, said Keith.
He also added that a good barista should master the technical skills of frothing milk for four cups at the same time with great foam quality, making consistent espressos, and reducing wastage on calibration.
And the most important, he said, is to multitask in the span of fifteen minutes – to churn out twelve drinks, to deliver coffee information, to memorise tasting notes and to clean the station! If you have all these, you are on the right track!
So, baristas, hold your portafilters tight! It’s going to be a long, bumpy ride.
But there’s always light at the end of the tunnel (in this case, should be a perfect cup of coffee!).