What’s your ultimate dream? I pose to the young barista, Aaron Phua, who’d been busy putting the final touches to proceedings for the Free Pour Latte Art Championship (FLC) Malaysia that’s coming up in just a matter of days. The event, organised by Thirty Seconds Café, of which Phua is the head barista, is similar to the Coffee Fest World Latte Art Championship, and is inspired by the desire to improve the latte art culture in Malaysia by providing a platform for baristas from around the country, including those from the South East Asian region, to showcase their skills in free pour latte art.
He takes a long sip of his espresso before replying: “To win the Malaysia Barista Championship. I competed earlier this year and came fourth, so I’m looking forward to next year. In this competition, you really need to focus on the quality of the coffee, the taste. It’s a full-on barista vehicle. I want to represent the country one day and take us to the top six in the world.”
Fast forward exactly two years later and I find myself in front of a bustling Thirty Seconds Café in leafy Bandar Sri Damansara, Kuala Lumpur, to congratulate its head barista, the very same Aaron Phua, for being crowned champion of the Malaysia Barista Championship (MBC) 2019.
This premier national barista championship is the only championship that’s sanctioned by the World Coffee Events, which governs the global barista competitions. A Malaysian champion from this competition gets the chance to represent the country and pit his skills against the world’s best baristas. This April, the World Barista Championship will be held in the US and Aaron’s definitely secured his ticket for that.
The loud tinkling of the bell as I push the café door open catches the young barista’s attention. Clad in his trademark all black ensemble, the 25-year-old is busy at his station, perfecting some design in someone’s coffee cup. He waves me over, his wide beam lighting up the otherwise dimly-lit café. There’s a palpable buzz in the café and I can understand why.
In one corner of the café, resting on a high table is what appears to be a mock winner’s signage together with the champion’s trophy. Congratulatory comments abound as customers – most of whom regulars – accord the head barista due recognition for his proud achievement.
Pulling a chair by a table near the entrance, I signal to Phua to take his time. I’m quite contented to just soak in the cosy babble of this family-run café that’s also helmed by his father, Richard Phua, mother, Sharon and older brother, Yi Lik. The presence of a kitten which has managed to sneak into the café keeps me engrossed.
“Here you go!” a familiar voice jolts me from my preoccupation with the kitten. To my delight, I see my ‘usual’ – an extra hot cup of cappuccino – complete with an intricate design of a swan in flight, placed on the table with a flourish. “Sorry to keep you waiting,” says Phua, apologetically. But of course he’s forgiven, in part, because of the coffee!
Congratulations, I exclaim, genuinely happy for this talented young man. And again that wide beam. He’s probably relieved that it’s all over. From what I’d heard, training for this 3-day competition had been pretty rigorous. So what’s the story, I probe, reaching for my coffee and pressing the record button on my phone.
EXPERIMENT AND EXPLORE
“This was actually my fifth time competing in the Malaysian Barista Championship,” begins Phua, grinning at my surprised expression. “The first two years I managed to reach the ‘prelims’. In 2017, I got into the semis but finished fourth. Last year in 2018, I finished third.”
Unable to wipe the smile off his face, the 25-year-old confides that he hadn’t actually planned to enter this year. But his roaster and coach had other plans. They encouraged him to participate, saying that they had ‘something in the bag’ for him if he did.
Was he optimistic about his chances of victory this year? A pause and Phua, who started off as a bartender at his college where he was studying hotel management, shrugs his broad shoulders. “To be honest, I didn’t really think about it. In fact, I thought it’d be harder for me to pull it off this year as I was using a different coffee from previous years. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone this time around, try something different.”
Passionately, he continues: “I wanted to learn something new and explore a little bit more. So this year, I went in with no expectations compared to previous years. You could say I was in an experimental mode; I just tried my best.”
“This kind of competition is pretty much routine-based so you have to be very familiar with what you do,” explains Phua when posed about his preparations for the championship. “You can’t have any bad habits so you make sure that whatever you’re doing daily meets the score sheets.”
Bad habits can include distribution, for example, when the barista doses the coffee in a portafilter, he must ensure that it’s evenly spread throughout the portafilter so that an even extraction can be obtained. “Sometimes when it gets busy, this can get neglected!”
The technical score sheet is akin to the holy grail for participants to try to conquer when they train. “We created a routine and then just ensured that the various criteria on the sheet are met. For example, there’d be scrutiny on how I handle my machine, my grinder, and finally the judges’ table (presentation and clarification). My training was supervised by the former national champ and my roaster, who was the former national’s coach!”
Phua found himself competing with 12 other baristas from all over Malaysia. There were three ‘courses’ that the participants were judged on – the Espresso Course, where they had to prepare four espressos; the Milk Course (four milk) and finally the Signature Course.
Sensing my confusion, Phua attempts to explain: “In the ‘Espresso Course’, we’re looking for taste balance – sweetness, acidity and bitterness. The judges look into the intensity of all three and how harmoniously they work together. Then there’s the accuracy of flavour descriptor – whatever I taste, I describe and explain to the judges. Whatever is in my description must be true when the judges do their sampling.”
The last ‘test’ for the Espresso Course is the ‘tactile’ category. This is when the judges will look into the body of the coffee, its texture and aftertaste. The aftertaste, shares Phua, has to be smooth and not dry or astringent.
The following course, the Milk Course, is a slightly simpler category. For this, the coffee is judged on its taste balance, namely how harmoniously the milk and coffee combine. A flavour descriptor exercise is also applied here.
The final course is the Signature, of which there are several categories, elaborates Phua. “Here, the judges look into how well I explain my signature creation, in addition to the creativity and synergy that are imbued. Basically, I have to show what’s my input into the beverage that makes it so unique and different from the espresso offerings I presented to them earlier. Again, flavour and taste balance are considered.”
Phua shares that for this competition, he used Direct Trade coffee. “I believe in sustainability, meaning using coffees that are of high quality that can be presented on stage but at the same time can also be used back in the café and served daily.”
RECIPE FOR SUCCESS
The soft-spoken barista attributes his success this year to the fact that he was willing to take a risk. “My team and I wanted to do something that would benefit the industry. For example, the reason why we chose the coffees we chose to present on stage was because they’re not known varietal for competitions.”
Elaborating, he says: “Normally ‘competition people’ would use Geisha coffee (Geisha coffee from Panama is the most expensive coffee in the world), or indulge in a funkier processing method to bring out the flavour of the coffee. Ee opted to use something that’s very common among the coffee-producing countries. We used caturra coffee, a natural mutation of the Bourbon variety, originating from Brazil. We chose this coffee because of its quality.”
Phua utilised a process that’s familiar to everyone – the washed process, whereby coffee is processed by the wet method. In this method, the fruit covering the seeds/beans is removed before they’re dried. This method requires substantial quantities of water. “We also used a varietal that’s easily accessed like caturra, a natural mutation of the Bourbon variety. We just wanted to feature it on stage.”
Expression earnest, Phua confides that he personally believes in good quality coffees but those that you don’t necessarily have to pay a lot for. The award-winning Geisha coffee that he referred to earlier for example, can cost more than $600 per pound, particularly from the family-owned plantation, Hacienda la Esmeralda, located in Boquete, Panama.
What generally happens in competitions is that baristas will use these expensive and exotic coffees. But do these beans get to the consumer and more importantly, will consumers want to pay so much for their cuppa?
Replies Phua: “As a barista, I really want to be able to serve my customers a better quality coffee. Ideally, whatever I serve on stage, I really mean to put it in my customers’ cups – at no extra cost.”
IMPORTANCE OF COMPETITIONS
Competitions like this, believes Phua, is a wonderful platform for baristas to showcase their knowledge of coffee and the importance of having better quality coffee. Says Phua: “I feel that coffee is a beverage that’s under appreciated. A lot of the time people don’t understand what they’re paying for. They want something that’s bitter and really strong, whereas we want to be able to give you something that’s fruity and has lively acidity like fruits in a coffee. Not many Malaysians can accept this yet so it’s good to have competitions like this which allows us to present what we enjoy and also gives the public the opportunity to find out what’s going on within the industry.”
Changing trends in the industry continue to excite him, particularly those related to innovations in coffee processing. Excitedly, Phua shares: “We see how people are processing their coffee differently. There are now new things like anaerobic lacto-fermentation – wet fermentation in the absence of oxygen – which creates lactic acid, which in turn results in a creamier and full bodied/silky mouth-feel texture in the cup.”
In lacto-fermentation, Phua explains that oxygen is vacuumed out from the bag to let the coffee ferment with the lactic acid bacteria. “It brings out different characteristics in the coffee. Another trend at the moment is the carbonic maceration, an innovative fermentation method, and a process generally used in wine making.”
Phua, whose drink of choice is good ol’ espresso, keeps abreast with what’s happening around the world by “… a lot of reading and ‘following’ overseas baristas on their ‘pages’ to see what they’re doing. We try to keep up with trends. On our side, we try our best to understand what we can understand as well.”
Here at Thirty Seconds Cafe, the emphasis, shares Phua, is on ‘honest’ coffee. “What we enjoy, we serve. And we strive to understand where the coffees are coming from. Lately we’ve been getting coffees directly traded from the farm so there’s no third party involved. Whatever we pay, it may be a little higher, but at least we know it’s going back to the farmers.”
The World Barista Championship is akin to the Oscars of the film world. Whoever wins this will have the biggest influence in the industry. And suffice to say, Phua’s raring to go. He and his team are already planning their strategy. But they’re adamant that whatever they do, it’ll be something that will benefit the industry.
Helping to put Malaysia in the top 6 in the world is Phua’s dream. Malaysia currently ranks 7th in the world in this Barista Championship. Success has been enjoyed In the Brewers Cup and Latte Art, where in the latter, Malaysia is world champion. “In the Brewers’ Cup, we’re second,” says Phua proudly. “The biggest ‘fish’ is this Barista Championship. We have to be in the top 6. In 2017, we ranked number 7. In 2018, we ranked 10, highest in the whole of Asia. It shows that we’re improving from year to year and that we’re serving better coffee every day!”