Joining the express-o stream

By Dayna Yin

Undergrad Loh Hiu Wai is training to become a barista. PHOTO: DAYNA YIN

Kopi o. Kopi gao. Kopi siew dai.

The coffee culture in Singapore revolves around a curious blend of Hokkien lingo that is often lost on younger generations.

But this has not stopped second-year Nanyang Business School student Loh Hiu Wai from pursuing her passions.

Inspired by conversations with canteen staff at her junior college, she began visiting more artisanal coffee establishments and started developing a taste for different types of coffee.

Soon, her interest in coffee went beyond the neighbourhood kopitiam as she set her sights on the craft behind the perfect latte.

Today, she spends her off-campus days as a barista-in-training at The Tiny Roaster, a small coffee roasting establishment located at Sunset Way.

“I was thinking, ‘If not now, then when?’ [Coffee-making] is not a slipshod kind of job because it will really show in the coffee quality,” said Loh.

“When you come to The Tiny Roaster, you, as a barista, really start to go in-depth about extraction and the different types of beans producing different tastes,” she said.

Loh is part of a growing number of NTU students who are dipping their toes into third-wave coffee culture — a movement to produce high-quality coffee through improvements at all stages of production.

For final-year School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences student Amelia Yap, her goals as a barista have evolved over the last three years during her stint at the award-winning café, Strangers Reunion, and its sister outlet, Curious Palette.

Initially looking to kill time and earn extra cash during the holidays, Yap found that working during the semester helped her cope with stressful coursework.

“I really feel like working is a form of de-stress, to get away from studying,” said the 23-year-old, who takes comfort in the little joys of her routine to produce the perfect cup.

SPMS senior Amelia Yap whipping up a cafe latte. PHOTO: DAYNA YIN

Other perks of the job include meeting a diverse range of people who share her love of coffee. From knowledgeable mentors to coffee enthusiasts, Yap makes it a point to strike up conversations to share and gain more knowledge about her passion.

“I think meeting different people in this industry has really enriched me as a person. Good coffee is subjective and everybody has a different palate, but they’re all so willing to share about their experiences,” said Yap.

Like most labours of love, coffee requires time and effort to perfect. On top of understanding how coffee is prepared, baristas need to possess strong knowledge on bean origins, steaming milk, and methods of coffee extraction.

For would-be student baristas, Yap stresses the importance of good mentorship.

At Stranger’s Reunion, Yap trained under Singapore National Barista & Latte Art Champion Zenn Soon for several months before being assigned to handle barista service on her own at Curious Palette.

“Workflow is so important,” said Yap.

“Working here [at Curious Palette], there’s this sense of achievement to proceed after you master something. So when they knew that I was keen, they put me on barista training.”

Now entering her second year at NTU, Loh shares similar sentiments on having proper training. She finds that her customers are mostly coffee enthusiasts and connoisseurs, and it can be quite intimidating to meet their expectations as a novice.

“You’re serving someone who probably has a lot more experience than you,” she said Loh. “But they trust us to do it and I feel like you also need to trust yourself also to make a good cup of coffee.”

So, what exactly does the future hold for NTU’s student baristas after they graduate?

School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering alumnus Mr Muhammad Ashiq is concerned that prospects in the industry might not be promising.

He has worked as a barista in establishments such as Maison Ikkoku, Dapper Coffee and Coast & Company for the last three years.

NTU alumnus Muhammad Ashiq has worked as a barista for the past three years. PHOTO: DAYNA YIN

“The only thing that is stopping me is that this café movement might just be a fad, from the amount of shops that have closed in the last few years,” said the 26-year-old.

According to a 2015 study by Spring Singapore, small businesses like cafés tend to struggle in the food and beverage industry. Statistics from the study show that four out of 10 such establishments close down in less than five years.

Despite the odds, Ashiq hopes his passion for the craft will lead him to pursue coffee as a livelihood some day.

“Combining work and passion is rare these days,” he said. “I really want to get into the coffee business and learn everything about coffee, from bean to cup.”