World- class barista

Top Malaysian barista Keith Koay was set for a ca­reer in ac­count­ing and fi­nance, un­til his pas­sion for cof­fee took over.

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AF­TER a mere two ye ears in the Malaysian cof­fee scen ne, Keith Koay, 24, is al­ready sip­ping t the heady brew of suc­cess.

At the re­cent World Barista Cham­pi­onship in Dubl lin, Ire­land, Koay came in at a very y re­spectable 16th place, even thoug gh he was up against a highly- com­peet­i­tive field of barista cham­pi­ons fromm 61 coun­tries.

It was Malaysia’s bes st- ever fin­ish at the cham­pi­onship, a and it came from some­one who on nly started his cof­fee jour­ney a few y ears ago, when he was an ac­count­ing and fi­nance stu­dent.

“My par­ents weren’tt very happy be­cause they had spen nt so much money on my stud­ies, and in the end I just wanted to make cof­fee,” said the soft- spo­ken Koay w with a laugh.

In uni­ver­sity, he bec came so ob­sessed with cof­fee, heh once failed an exam be­cause he h ad spent the hours lead­ing up to the e paper re­search­ing cof­fee. Na at­u­rally, his par­ents weren’t very kenk on his cof­fee ca­reer.

“I told my par­ents, ‘ p please, just give me two years to do some­thing I love and prove to you I can make a ca­reer from cof­fee’,” he said.

And what a ca­reer it has been, even af­ter just two years. In Jan­uary, he won the 2016 Malaysia Barista Cham­pi­onship ( his ticket to the World Cham­pi­onship), and he re­cently opened his very own cafe One Half, in Pe­tal­ing Jaya.

Win­ning brew

Com­pet­ing at the World Barista Cham­pi­onship was a com­pletely new chal­lenge for Koay.

Not only would he have to pre­pare three cof­fee- based bev­er­ages – an espresso, a milk drink and a sig­na­ture drink, once for each of the four judges – he would also have to nar­rate the process.

“We had to ex­plain to the judges what we wanted to show­case to the world, our knowl­edge and pas­sion,” ex­plained Koay.

And Koay made sure to show­case Malaysia in both his sig­na­ture drink and pre­sen­ta­tion.

He in­cor­po­rated pan­dan leaves into his drink, giv­ing it a uniquely Malaysian twist.

“I blended the pan­dan leaves with syrup to give the espresso a re­ally creamy tex­ture,” he said.

The mix­ture was then blended with agave syrup, orange juice and ca­cao tea, roasted and brewed in- house from ca­cao nibs sourced from Pa­pua New Guinea.

“It’s a re­ally per­fect match,” said Koay with pride.

While Koay is un­doubt­edly a tal­ented barista armed with a strong sig­na­ture drink, hav­ing to “per­form” in front of an au­di­ence of cof­fee con­nois­seurs was not some­thing that came nat­u­rally to him.

Luck­ily for him, he had found a coach in cof­fee en­tre­pre­neur Joey Mah, one of the more colour­ful and out­spo­ken char­ac­ters on the lo­cal spe­cialty cof­fee scene.

Mah, who co- owns Three Lit­tle Birds Cof­fee and Ar­ti­san Roast­ery, coached Koay ahead of the cham­pi­onship, giv­ing him ac­cess to a com­pe­ti­tion- style counter set- up where he could prac­tice.

“He even made a card­board cutout of the judges, and I drew faces on it so I could prac­tice mak­ing eye con­tact!” he said with a laugh.

But still, the key in­gre­di­ent ( pun in­tended) to any barista’s suc­cess is his/ her cof­fee beans. And on that

front, Mah was also able to help.

The two went to Tai­wan to source for the best beans and to learn more about the cof­fee sourc­ing process.

“Tai­wan is not a source coun­try, but we have some con­tacts there who are buy­ers. They have some of the best cof­fee in the world,” said Koay.

It might seem like an aw­fully con­vo­luted process, hav­ing to fly to Tai­wan to bring in cof­fee which had been brought in from a third coun­try, but that’s the re­al­ity for most Malaysian baris­tas, and it makes Koay’s per­for­mance at the World Cham­pi­onship all the more im­pres­sive.

In fact, Koay and Mah’s used the story of Malaysia’s fledg­ling spe­cialty cof­fee in­dus­try to their ad­van­tage. They in­cor­po­rated it into Koay’s pre­sen­ta­tion, where he spoke about the chal­lenges of mak­ing good cof­fee in such an en­vi­ron­ment.

“I wanted to be re­ally hon­est and share the is­sues that the Malaysian cof­fee in­dus­try is fac­ing,” he said.

“We are a very small player so it’s a prob­lem try­ing to source high qual­ity cof­fee be­cause of cur­rency fluc­tu­a­tions and the low vol­ume of or­ders.”

Heady days

About a decade ago, the spe­cialty cof­fee in­dus­try in Tai­wan was pretty much where Malaysia is at right now. There was not much ap­pre­ci­a­tion for Western- style cof­fee, es­pe­cially in a coun­try famed for its tea.

Ac­cord­ing to Saveur. com, things started to change in 2007 when the Na­tional Cof­fee As­so­ci­a­tion started or­gan­is­ing the Tai­wan Barista Cham­pi­onship.

To­day, the World Barista Cham­pion is Berg Wu from Tai­wan, and Taipei is con­sid­ered one of the most vi­brant cof­fee des­ti­na­tions in the world.

Even though he fin­ished a full 15 places be­low Wu, Koay can take a lot of en­cour­age­ment from Wu’s win not only for his per­sonal jour­ney as a com­pet­i­tive barista, but for the Malaysian cof­fee in­dus­try as a whole.

“The Malaysian cof­fee- drink­ing cul­ture is get­ting bet­ter ev­ery year. Even in the past two years, I’ve seen a lot of im­prove­ment. More peo­ple are will­ing to try dif­fer­ent types of cof­fee now – and spend money on it – which I’m re­ally glad and ex­cited about,” he said.

Post- com­pe­ti­tion, Koay is full of plans. For starters, he is about to fully delve into his quest for the per­fect cof­fee.

“I’ve never been to a source coun­try, like Gu­atemala or In­done­sia, where you have to go deep into the jun­gle or the hills to meet the grow­ers. Hope­fully this year though!” he said with a glint in his eye.

Ever am­bi­tious, Koay is also plan­ning his next cafe, which he hopes to launch at the end of the year, some­thing with a “to­tally dif­fer­ent con­cept”.

“I want to show­case what I love and my pas­sion, which is to serve spe­cial­ity cof­fee to peo­ple,” he said.

With an em­pire in the mak­ing and ev­i­dence that Koay is fi­nally putting his stud­ies to use as a business owner, surely his par­ents have come around?

“My par­ents are re­ally proud of me! They seem happy, while I get to pur­sue my dreams. So that’s good news for me!”

Good news for all Malaysian cof­fee lovers, too.

— Photo: HAFRIZ IQBAL/ The Star

Malaysia Barista Cham­pi­onship win­ner Koay achieved Malaysia's high­est ever rank­ing at the World Barista Cham­pi­onship this year.

— Photo: Keith Koay

Koay be­gan his jour­ney into the world of cof­fee by ex­per­i­ment­ing with latte art.

— Photo: JAKE OL­SON/ WCE

Koay per­form­ing his cof­fee pre­sen­ta­tion in front of judges at the 2016 World Barista Cham­pi­onship in Dublin, Ire­land.

Watch the lat­est episode of our # CloseUp in­ter­view se­ries, with cham­pion barista Keith Koay.

— Photo: Lee Kerr

The Malaysia Barista Cham­pi­onship was cre­ated to im­prove the skills of lo­cal baris­tas, and it sure gave Koay's ca­reer a huge boost.

— Photo: CLAIRE GAUNT/ R. AGE

Koay's Malaysia Barista Cham­pi­onship tropy, which came with the op­por­tu­nity to rep­re­sent Malaysia on the world stage.

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