The Battle of Baristas

If you’re a coffee nut like us (there’s no shame in it), you’ll already know that the 2011 Singapore National Barista Championships (SNBC) are taking place from Mar 21-23. Organized in conjunction with Tea & Coffee World Cup Singapore by the Singapore Coffee Association (SCA), the latest edition of the competition comes at a time when specialty coffee culture appears to be making something of a breakthrough here.
Says Victor Mah, President of SCA, “The event aims to raise the profile of the barista to that of a recognized professional, where local baristas can gather and share their passion and interest.” There’s no doubting that the competition is a big deal—aside from the title, the winner of this year’s SNBC will go on to represent Singapore in the World Barista Championship (WBC) at Bogota, Colombia in June—and participants deserve all the plaudits that come their way.
Australian Harry Grover, owner and head barista of so-hip-it-hurts 40 Hands (#01-12, 78 Yong Siak St., 6225-8545) in Tiong Bahru, knows how important the competition is elsewhere. “It’s a big thing to win it in Australia and it opens up a lot of doors,” he says. “You have to do a lot of training, serious training, to compete in something like the SNBC. You don’t just rock up and do it, and it does add credibility to your CV.”
However, it’s far from clear that the set-up here in Singapore is the best platform for giving the scene a boost. The scene is still in its infancy, and some of those leading the charge haven’t been here all that long. Given the nature of our service workforce (a large percentage of which is foreign), the requirement that foreigners work in the coffee industry here for two years before they’re eligible to enter (it’s open to all Singaporeans and PRs, regardless of how long they’ve been in the industry), hardly encourages top-notch competition; even if the rule is necessary for the event to qualify as a WBC preliminary. Perhaps the rules in place could be changed in recognition of the fact that while foreign baristas may be newcomers to the industry here, they’re no strangers to the coffee industry where they hail from.
Says Grover, “I feel like the NBC is a little more unknown here as the industry is still fairly young. There just seems to be a bit more emphasis and pride placed on baristas as a profession back home. There aren’t a lot of career baristas here, especially local ones. I’d really like to see it available for my foreign employees, who see being a barista as a career, especially as they’re adding value to the coffee scene here.”
That said, the competition will still be graced by some undoubted talent. One person who knows what it takes to win is Keith Loh, coffee maestro, reigning champion of 2010’s SNBC and owner of Oriole Coffee, including its newest outlet Oriole Espresso & Brew Bar (#01-23/23A, Republic Plaza, 9 Raffles Place, 6438-3843). He’s a rare breed, as most business owners simply don’t have the time to train for something as intense as this. “To be honest, I don’t actually train that much physically,” he says, “but I keep running over details in my head. And of course, experience helps. I don’t go into a competition thinking it’s an individual effort. My whole organization rallies behind me to give me the time to train.”
Loh is looking forward to defending his crown this year. “I really have to focus as expectations are a lot higher and the pressure’s even greater as I’m in the position of having to defend my title. I have everything to lose. After all these years of being a barista, I still believe I’m my biggest competitor.” He’s quick to add, “It’s not just about winning. At the end of the day, it’s all about my passion for coffee. And it’s a platform to improve the specialty coffee community as a whole and raise the level of professionalism and quality of coffee offerings in Singapore.”
Asked whether he thinks the rules need changing, Loh suggests the SCA “try to be as inclusive as possible, but the idea is for the participants to give back to the coffee community here.”
There may be some truth in that: If someone could just turn up, participate (maybe even win) and then leave, the scene as a whole would be poorer. Although, in theory, a Singaporean or PR could do just that, they’re arguably more likely to be permanently committed to the scene here.
Yet there’s no question that many of the young baristas working at the likes of 40 Hands are just as passionate about their work, and about building the scene here, as the people who’ll be competing in the coming days. We just have to hope they’ll stick around long enough to one day go head to head with them.
The Tea & Coffee World Cup Singapore runs from Mar 21-23 at Suntec International Convention & Exhibition Centre—Hall 401 (1 Raffles Blvd., Suntec City, 6337-2888) and includes workshops, tastings and auctions. Entry to the National Barista Championships is free, but space is limited. Find out more and register at or email [email protected].