I’m about to approach the lady at the information desk when suddenly I hear a faint uproar coming from the swimming pool area of Sri Damansara Club in leafy Bandar Sri Damansara, KL. Curious, I make my way down the steps, led by the enticing aroma of freshly brewed coffee. As I near the Saga Room where the Free Pour Latte Art Championship (FLC) is being held, a familiar face comes into view.
“Hi Sulyn! I’m glad you could make it! It has been an interesting fight so far with really amazing latte art being created by the contestants. I think our judges are having a really hard time today!” enthuses Richard Phua with a hearty chuckle. The genial host is the general manager of Thirty Seconds cafe located just a stone’s throw away from the Club. Thirty Seconds, a popular coffee haunt in this locale, is FLC’s largest sponsor and organiser. Richard’s son and the cafe’s head barista, Aaron Phua, is the brain behind the competition.
This year marks the third year for this independent free pour latte art championship in the country. “We’ve grown much bigger this year and it’s exciting. I like to think of it this way: We’re now playing an 18-hole game of golf, while previously we were only playing 9-holes. I believe that’s a big achievement for us as well as the coffee industry,” says Richard excitedly.
This year, the FLC committee received more than 100 submissions from baristas around Malaysia, Thailand and even Singapore. It’s a significant increase from the previous years’ competition. Suffice to say, the three esteemed judges well-known in the coffee industry and who’ve been invited to preside over the competition (Irvine Quek, Edward Choo and Jarus Loh) have had a monumental task trying to dwindle the numbers down to only 64 for the final event. But dwindle it they have and it’s these 64 baristas that I’m now witnessing putting on a showcase of their skills as they attempt to emerge victorious.
The FLC follows adheres closely to the international coffee competition standards, explains Aaron. He believes that it’s a great platform and opportunity for baristas in the Southeast Asian region to have the opportunity to experience what it’s really like in international championships before putting themselves out there.
“I’m glad to see so many talents from different countries participating this year. Hopefully, we’ll see more from the other Southeast Asian countries next year,” says Aaron. With more contestants participating from other countries, it will not only lend more credibility to the championship, but also enable participants to learn from one another. It’s somewhat like a coffee culture exchange of sorts.
The noise is amplified in the mid-sized room-turned-temporary-coffee bar. Two whirring espresso machines are lined side by side at the front while Aaron stands to the side as host. In one corner, the three judges, their heads bowed, are busy scoring the creations of the two contestants standing in front of them. Meanwhile, the other participants, most of whom are waiting for their turn and verdict, mill around nervously.
A large knockout board is erected at the back of the room, charting winners who are moving on to the next round. It’s not unlike those boards you see during the Fifa World Cup games. There are also pictures of each participant’s design pinned to their names. To the untrained eye like mine, each picture seems to show a beautiful and intricate pattern, making it hard to distinguish which is the better one.
Noting my uncertainty, Aaron patiently explains that there are only five criteria on which the participants are judged. “The judges will compare the aesthetic beauty of the art to see which pour is more Instagram-worthy; the degree of creativity or difficulty of the design; the definition or how harmonious the pattern sits in the cup; its colour infusion (where the brown of the coffee needs to contrast deeply with the white of the milk) and finally, the speed of your pouring.” That said, the judges will still have a tough time selecting the winner as they’re inclined to adhere to similar standards as those of the renowned Coffee Fest competitions held annually in America.
Unearthing hidden talents
When Aaron first entered the Coffee Fest competitions both in America and Japan back in the early 2010s, he admits to feeling overwhelmed by how serious they took their coffee preparations, quality and its art. His experience taught him that with determination and constant practice, anyone can take part and have a go at trying to win the championship.
“There are many talents in our country but sadly, only a few are daring enough to step up to those heights. I feel sad because I know that we can do as well as the baristas from other countries. I’m sure we can even beat them if given the chance!” he says with conviction.
And that’s essentially why he decided to establish FLC. With the help of his dad, Aaron was determined to use this event as a platform to encourage hidden talents in this country to step up to the plate.
Both men concur that the skills of our country’s baristas have grown tremendously since the first FLC championship held in 2015. “There are more Malaysians in international competitions now. Amazingly, two of our winners today (the champion and second-runner up winner) have been selected to represent Malaysia in the Japan Coffee Fest happening soon. They are part of the reason why we continue doing what we do here,” shares Aaron.
Chipping in, Richard adds: “It’s all about the kung fu (skills). And the more opportunity they have to practice and showcase it, the higher we can alleviate them and our coffee culture. At the end of the day, it’s a good thing not only for the baristas but also coffee lovers such as ourselves.”
Difference of a second
A sudden silence descends on the room as two finalists prepare to battle it out for the championship crown. It’s the first time in three years that there are two different nationals in the finals. There’s Sittipong Yongsiri representing his homeland, Thailand, and Malaysian Kevin Lau from New Chapters by The Owls Cafe.
Their speed and persistence at the espresso machines are electrifying. Once done, they present their art with only a fraction of a second separating their delivery to the table. The judges seem to take longer than usual to contemplate the winner.
Minutes pass and finally the victor is announced. It’s the Malaysian — Lau — and the room erupts with whoops of delight — especially among the Malaysians
in the room.
“The fight was truly tough and they’re definitely worthy finalists,” says Quek, 2017’s FLC champion and this year’s Malaysia Latte Art Championship winner, after the event.
Nodding his head in agreement, Choo, a well-established Malaysian roaster who has both Specialty Coffee Association of America and Specialty Coffee Association of Europe accreditation under his belt, adds: “They’re both very good baristas and their designs were simply well done. I’m glad to see such standards and talents being presented here.”
As the crowd starts to thin out, I make my way towards Aaron to congratulate him on a job well done. “I’m glad it went well, but I do wish we had more time for a small friendly competition for those who couldn’t take part. Maybe next year we’ll make this even bigger and turn it into a proper festival?” he says, eyes twinkling.
Before taking my leave, I ask Aaron what’s the one thing he’s been amazed with in this year’s competition. Without pause, he replies: “The classic pours from both finalists! I’m happy to see that the art hasn’t died and hopefully it remains that way. I’m not saying the newer and trendier pours aren’t good, but I’m an old soul and it’s always heart-warming to see old school designs taking top positions.”
Concluding, he adds: “Hopefully, we’ll get to see more of this or even better, more intricate designs that combine a multitude of techniques next year!”
Champion: Kevin Lau (New Chapters by The Owls Cafe)
How do you feel?
“Sittipong is a great competitor and I’m very glad to have gone up against someone like him. It’s my first time being pitted against a Thai competitor and I’ve learned a lot from this experience. I’ve been a barista since 2012 and to finally win something is a real honour. I’ve competed in this FLC championship twice and this is my third time. I was really determined to win it this year!”
What design did you create?
“I stuck to the classic winged tulip but I added an intricate frame at the base that alleviates the simple tulip. I’m a big fan of frames and I owe it to Aaron who taught me the technique. It’s safe to say that he’s my mentor and someone I truly look up to. Hopefully, I can either replicate this or make this better when I compete in the Japan Coffee Fest later.”
First-Runner Up: Sittipong Yongsiri (Rosetta Pad Riew, Thailand)
How do you feel?
“It’s my second time competing here and I’m really excited. Although I’m only taking home the second prize it’s still an honour for my country. All in all, I’ve really enjoyed being a part of this championship and I hope to be here again. Maybe I’ll be champion then?”
What design did you create?
“I poured the classic slow leaf pattern because I love this design. But maybe next year I’ll do something different, something much better and faster to do.”
Second-Runner Up: Tan Chin Sin (New Chapters by The Owls Cafe)
How do you feel?
“Extremely nervous! It’s my third time here but it’s my first time achieving such a high spot in the competition. I’ve been working as a barista for four year and this has been a wonderful experience. I do hope to join again next year and see if I can beat my own achievement.”
What design did you create?
“I created the slow leaf patterns and I’m glad it came out well. But to do it, you really need a steady hand and focus which isn’t easy to achieve in this kind of knockout format competition. That said, I’m glad for the experience as it’ll help me to prepare for my showdown in Japan soon.”
PICTURES BY Nurul Syazana Rose Razman and Zulfadhli Zulkifli