Thursday, July 12, 2012

A Barista in Singapore

* Back in 2007, my sister enrolled me to a barista workshop in Singapore to start my career as a professional barista just a few months after graduating from college. The coffee shop/school is called Highlander Coffee. It was there where I met my first group of enthusiastic and passionate baristas. Owners and baristas Phil and Cedric Ho introduced me to a whole new world of coffee full of machines, gadgets, and coffee beans from every corner of the world. I came back in 2009 for a skills upgrade and met their new barista, Li. It was with Li where I experienced pulling shots behind the bar for Singaporeans. It's encouraging to see Li doing so well. Here's an article about him and his job as a barista.


Photos at Highlander Coffee (2009):

Jobs 101: Coffee Barista

by Lim Bei Ling on 6 June 2012

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Jobs 101: Coffee Barista
Coffee, the ultimate 'cure' for sleepy students or office workers pulling an all-nighter, can come in many different types. Very often, we stock up on pre-packed 3-in-1 coffee for a quick fix. But making a good cup of coffee is more than just adding water to powder or pressing some buttons on an espresso machine, as most serious coffee drinkers will tell you. It takes practice and experimentation to achieve a consistent cup of good, fragrant coffee.
Last month, Youth.SG visited Kwok Li at Highlander Coffee to learn more about being a coffee barista.
WHO: Hew Kwok Li, 26
OCCUPATION: Lead barista at Highlander Coffee
STUDIED: Diploma in Business Studies (Tourism & Leisure Management) at Ngee Ann Polytechnic
When I stepped into Highlander Coffee, I was greeted by the aromatic scent of coffee beans and the friendly co-owner of Highlander, Phil, who welcomed me with a nice cup of café latte – what a treat!:
As I slowly savoured my café latte (which I liked very much), Kwok Li shared more about his experience as a coffee barista:
Tell us about yourself.
I like Japanese and Hong Kong comics, as welI as Chinese martial arts novels.
Tell us more about what a coffee barista does.
Coffee baristas make coffee and (definitely) love to drink coffee. We handle coffee machines and have to study the different kinds of coffee. Of course, there is also latte art, which requires lots of practice to master. Besides coffee, another aspect will be interacting with customers.
How and why did you come into this trade?
I have always liked coffee and drank a lot of local coffee (those from hawker stalls). When I finished national service back in 2007, I wanted to do something I like, fulfilling my passion for coffee – learning how to make coffee. I did an online search and the first result was Highlander Coffee, which offers barista training and workshops. So I went to Highlander and told them I wanted to learn how to be a barista and that was how my journey started.
I must admit though, two other reasons why I became a barista in the beginning was because of the fanciful latte art and I disliked the setting of an office job.
Describe a typical day at work.
In the morning, I come into the shop and switch on the machines. While waiting for it to get ready, which will take about half an hour, I set up the stations (food, coffee beans and etc.) and do general cleaning. When the machines are ready, I will make coffee for myself and sometimes, my bosses as well. Throughout the day, when customers come in, I will interact with them while making coffee. At the end of the day is a whole lot of cleaning.
Here are some pictures of Kwok Li at work:

Share with us a memorable experience you had and why you found it memorable.
This may not sound like much but it holds a special place in my heart.
I have a regular customer, whom I have seen through different stages of his life: when he was dating, when he brought his partner to have coffee here, to pregnancy, and now, they come with their kids. It is heart-warming to be able to 'witness' the progress of their lives. I even get to see their kid grow up – from a baby in a pram, to a toddler running around and playing.
How long have you been in this industry and how has it changed over the years?
I have been doing this since 2007.
There are many new and uprising coffee shops, so there is an increase in friendly competition. It is good though, because there is a wider variety, and people are starting to be more aware of and curious about coffee.
Although there is still no school that offers a full course of study or lessons on coffee barista-ing, there are more places that are offering private training. We are also getting more students signing up for trainings and workshops at Highlander.
What are some of the toughest challenges you face?
Finding out what kind of coffee customers want. As a barista, I often get customers coming in asking for coffee but not knowing what they want exactly. I will have to ask them questions like whether they like a 'stronger' kind of coffee or not. Even so, a customer’s understanding of a 'strong' coffee can be different from mine.  So, when I meet these customers, I will have to rely on my expertise and do my best to whip something up that they may like.
Another big challenge is the consistency of coffee. It is not easy to make sure that every cup of coffee or latte art that you make is consistent because even a slight change in the amount of coffee, milk, or foam can make a big difference.
What motivates you in your work?
When I see my regular customers coming back often and we start addressing each other by name. Gradually, we become friends and whenever they come, I just serve them 'the usual'.
We have become friends with our neighbours (nearby shops) too, whom we will hang out with for meals and share our food or drinks – like a family.
Additionally, another perk is that I do not need to work on Sundays and public holidays as Highlander is closed on those days.
What advice do you have for youths considering a career as a coffee barista?
You must love coffee and be willing to learn. There is and always will be competition, but being a barista is not about fame and honour but the passion in coffee and in making a good cup of coffee for your customer. Like any food and beverage store, you have to withstand the long hours if you want to be a good barista. Do not expect a high salary and do it only if you really enjoy.
Many people are attracted to barista-ing because of latte art and I admit, it is fancy. However, the coffee is more important than the art – you have to get your coffee to taste good before you make it look good.

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