Coffee – some like it hot and some like it cold. But most coffee lovers are not aware of the difference between regular and specialty coffee. Is there a difference between the two? There most definitely is a world of difference if only we were to know.
So what exactly are you in for when coffee is a specialty?
Specialty coffee entails a thorough and stringent quality check at all stages of coffee production, right from the bean to the cup. That means that not a single bean escapes the rigorous process; right from the cultivation, harvest, roasting and grinding, which could ruin the taste, the experience and joy of the real coffee taste.
How do we know it all?
Enter Sam Tan Sze Yuin, ICCA Barista instructor, the two-time International Barista Championship winner is all geared up for the Dubai International Barista Championship representing ICCA Dubai, at the International Coffee and Tea Festival, Dubai International Convention & Exhibition Center from 14th to 16th December 2017.
We had a quick chat with her before she leaves for the competition to know more about the specialty coffee, the Championships and the magical kick that a freshly brewed aromatic cup has to offer.
Shruti: How did you get involved with specialty coffee and how did it all start?
Sam: It all started a few years ago when my sister opened a cafe of her own while I was working as a cafe supervisor in Malaysia. At that time, she had bought a new coffee machine for the café, and that is when I tasted espresso for the first time. I fell in love with it instantly, the taste, aroma and the feel it gave was nothing less than some kind of magic for me. At that very moment, the only thought that went through my mind was the possible variations that could be created out of that single shot of espresso.
Since then I started experimenting with coffee and the new machine. Back then I did not have much idea about barista courses or anything, so I tried to gain as much as knowledge as I could through internet & books and kept practicing.
Shruti: How did the competitions happen?
Sam: I got my first chance to participate at a national level Barista competition in 2011 with the help of our coffee machine vendor, from where everything started in the first place. I participated in the competition only with some three months of preparations. Although I did not win the contest, it was a great experience for me and I was lucky enough to meet many A-list baristas there, through whom I learned more and got myself ready for my second competition the same year. The second time with an improved barista in me, I managed to bag the 1st runner-up position at the competition.
Shruti: After 2011, you did not participate in any competition until 2015. Why was there such a long gap to compete again?
Sam: To participate in an international level competition, your country should have an official coffee association, which Malaysia did not have at the time. So those years I focused entirely on our cafe, improving my knowledge & skills as a barista and I also did my SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) course from Singapore.
It was around that time, Coffee Pro Hong Kong, one of the best Coffee Academies in Asia, opened their new branch in Malaysia, which provided me with the opportunity to work with them as a Barista instructor. By this time Malaysia Coffee Association was formed and I started competing again.
Shruti: You have won International Barista Championship twice, could you please share your experience with us?
Sam: In 2015, when I decided to compete again, it was Mr. Jinkyu Kim, Barista champion of Korea who trained me for the championships. Championships are quite tough as anticipated. The judging panel includes four sensory judges, two technical judges and a head judge for overall judgment. They mainly judge your work based on taste, consistency, technical knowledge, time management, and presentation. The most difficult part is to keep the beans fresh through the entire time as the freshness of the beans is one of the crucial aspects of the judgment.
Shruti: Are there any specific preparations required for a championship?
Sam: For me, championships are always about teamwork. It is not just me alone, who prepares for my competition. The teamwork begins with a good bean provider the farmer who grows the coffee beans in the best possible environment and conditions. Then it’s my sister, an expert green bean buyer who takes care of the quality of the beans that I use for my competition. Roasting is another important aspect of perfect coffee making and my brother being a roaster by profession takes care of it. Then finally comes my turn, being the barista to make the best out of all the team efforts that work hand-in-hand to build a champion. So when I win the championship, it’s a teamwork of my brother, sister, me and the farmer that is winning there.
Shruti: We all know that your knowledge in coffee has no limits, still is there any aspect of coffee you wish you knew more about?
Sam: Good question. This is something not many have asked me. I have tried my best to gain maximum knowledge about coffee. But something I have always been curious to know more is about the bean cultivation, its harvest, processing, and everything that happens to the beans before it reaches in my hand.
Shruti: How does it feel to be an International barista champion?
Sam: Being a champion in any field is a matter of pride. Like any other championship barista also comes with many benefits and added advantages which will make you adequate for many significant roles. A barista champion is eligible to judge other baristas or competitions can be a brand ambassador for coffee related products, will have a prominent name in the coffee industry and much more.
Shruti: What made you move to Dubai when you were at the peak of your career with the Championships, own cafes and the teaching profession at Coffee Pro in Malaysia?
Sam: I have tried to gain as much knowledge as possible in specialty coffee in the last few years, but I also believe knowledge is never enough. It is a continuing process and to learn more, there are many different coffee cultures around the world about which I wouldn’t be even aware of yet. Travelling and working with people from different culture will help me learn more about the different coffee cultures. I have heard that ICCA Dubai is a melting pot of cultures, and I am sure I could not have asked for a better medium to mingle and work with multicultural people from around the world under one roof. And even here, I am still doing all that I used to do back in Malaysia including competing for the championships.