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Story by CLAIRE GAUNT
Video by the R.AGE team
Cover photo by JAKE OLSON/WCE

AFTER a mere two years in the Malaysian coffee scene, Keith Koay, 24, is already sipping the heady brew of success.

At the recent World Barista Championship in Dublin, Ireland, Koay came in at a very respectable 16th place, even though he was up against a highly-competitive field of barista champions from 61 countries.

It was Malaysia’s best-ever finish at the championship, and it came from someone who only started his coffee journey a few years ago, when he was an accounting and finance student.

“My parents weren’t very happy because they had spent so much money on my studies, and in the end I just wanted to make coffee,” said the soft-spoken Koay with a laugh.

Barista Koay began his journey into the world of coffee by experimenting with latte art. — Photo: Keith Koay

Koay began his journey into the world of coffee by experimenting with latte art. — Photo: Keith Koay

In university, he became so obsessed with coffee, he once failed an exam because he had spent the hours leading up to the paper researching coffee. Naturally, his parents weren’t very keen on his coffee career.

“I told my parents, ‘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.

A world-class signature drink with a uniquely Malaysian twist

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.

Having won the Malaysian Barista Championship, Koay qualified as the Malaysian representative at the World Barista Championship 2016, held in Dublin. -- Photo: JOJO TAN

Having won the Malaysian Barista Championship, Koay qualified as the Malaysian representative at the World Barista Championship 2016, held in Dublin. — Photo: JOJO TAN

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.

Related Story: Malaysian Coffee entrepreneur Joey Mah’s journey to find and roast the world’s best coffee

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 for Malaysia’s coffee industry

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.

Related Story: From barista to bean sourcer, find out more about coffee careers in Malaysia

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.

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