VNBC 2019: What should a barista look like?

I guess each of us already had an answer which reflects our own role model.  Having an ideal image to look up to is not something bad. In fact, if someone is a role model of yourself, your way of life appears more specific of where to go and what to do. My role model is my coffee teacher: candid, humble, positive and owns a coffee blog.

What’s not so good about role model is when you start judging those who don’t look like your role model and build a prejudice against them.  Thu Pham – Top 2 of Vietnam National Barista Championship (VNBC) 2019 – experienced prejudice on her way to VNBC this year. Thu has worked for and with Sam Choi, founder of Quest Coffee, for the past 2 years in many roles: business partner, operations manager, assistant, translator, barista, etc. Most of the time, she is recognized by excellent translating and communication skills. Her movements always look soft, calm and flexible, which greatly differentiate her from other baristas in Vietnam. To me, she is a talented and hardworking girl who can conquer anything she wants to, including being a good barista. What surprise me are skeptical comments about Thu’s participation in VNBC, telling her that she should just be a manager as she doesn’t look like a barista. So, what should a barista look like?  And does it matter?

Thu 1

Setting those questions aside, Thu put her best effort in bringing the best experience to her “customers” on stage with confidence and control. At the end, the most important thing to Thu is to discover her ability and not to let her supporters down. Her accomplishment at VNBC 2019 is the most straightforward response to unreasonable doubts towards her. As she says: “They’re not wrong to doubt me. But now they will need to think again about their judgment.”

Please have a look at some spotlights of our interesting interview below, or click here if you prefer a video of our talk.

Can you tell me more about the coffee that you presented?

I used “Java”, an old variety, grown in Colombia. At its best, Java has winey texture bringing you good mouthfeel when you drink it. In VNBC score sheet, the score of espresso tactile will be multiplied by 4 so it has a great influence on your total score. I focused on that. Moreover, my topic for VNBC this year was customer’s experience when they come to me for coffee. When customers first start drinking coffee, it’s very challenging to have an espresso. People tend to try something pleasant, comfortable and easy to drink.  So I begin my VNBC presentation with milk based beverage. Day by day when that beverage becomes more familiar to them, they can recognize more layers of flavors in coffee and ready for a more intense drink, it’s time for an espresso. That’s why I serve espresso following the milk beverage. After they get used to the bold flavors of espresso, they’ll eager to learn more about it, to discover different aspects of it. It’s the perfect time for my signature drink. I combine the espresso with some ingredients to find out any changes in coffee flavors. I have to say that this Java coffee is perfect for my main concept.

For example, when Java goes with milk, the whole beverage is pleasant-tasting like salted caramel milkshake which is very easy to drink. And for my signature course, I had 2 steps for my customer to experience the changes of flavors. First I added coffee blossom honey, apple reduction and pink guava puree to my espressos to bring out the flavors of pink bubble gum, cotton candy, osmanthus with syrupy texture. The second step was to add the whipping cream to change the flavors to peach tea. It is really difficult to create something interesting within a limitation of making sure that the espresso still be the main flavor.

What is more, the espresso of Java has a great body with flavors changing between rounds. It is really unique. I only finalized its taste notes right before my performance, during my 20-minute preparation in preliminary round or 40-minute preparation in 2 other rounds. My coffee’s core flavor is orange but its density range is wide. In preliminary round, it tasted more like grapefruit, prune and dark chocolate. In semi-final round, it tasted exactly like orange, raisin and chocolate. In final round, it tasted like orange, prune, chocolate.

So basically it had flavors of citrus fruits, dried fruits and chocolate respectively?

Yes and then we considered whether those flavors appeared in lighter tone or darker tone and how sweet it was. For example, prune has a bit darker taste note and more delicate sweetness than raisin. But that’s just the general nature of this coffee and I only specifically described its flavors right before my performance.

Was there any difficult that you had to overcome during the preparation and competition?

Although I’m also working as a barista, people imply or even say that I don’t look like a barista. They said to me, “You don’t look like a barista. You can compete for fun but you should be a manager only”.

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You know, we only see a part of a big picture from our ankle. If I don’t tell you what I’ve done, you’ll never know. Most of the time, I appeared as Sam’s translator and engaged in mainly public activities so people have no idea of my “back-of-house” duties. It’s not my responsibility and I also cannot tell them about our company’s operation. Their opinions are just one-sided. I find it difficult to understand why people create a model of “What a barista should look like”. For example, you don’t look like a barista, either. You’re an office girl. We usually do our job with calm and ease. I’m a piano teacher so our styles will be totally different from others.  This prejudice can become an obstacle for many people. Luckily, I made an accomplishment in VNBC 2019 so they should consider their judgement. But that’s life. When a large number of baristas have the same look, it will create a model for the barista. But do you see how fast our industry grows? There are more and more people who work with coffee without being a full-time barista, they just love coffee and make coffee and this type of “barista” will appear more regularly in the future. I think there will be a new wave of theses “baristas” coming up, and I hope it happens. At least now people will not be afraid of taking part in coffee competition by seeing how I did. Just compete if you love coffee. There is no problem with that. That’s your life and you have your choice. It’s an experience. New factors will push up our industry, make it more multi-dimensional. If we only open doors for same old mindset, there will be no room for innovation.

Do you have any advice for our barista fellows if they want to compete at VNBC next year?

Just do it if you love it. I had a bunch of competing experience as I studied a lot of things. People are usually afraid of competition but it gives you a huge motivation to push you up, going beyond your limit. Don’t fear! Don’t think “I don’t look like a barista, I can’t compete!” Now nobody can say that to me again. I think that along with the fast paced movement of coffee industry, people tend to idolize the “barista” and build the image of somebody that is very difficult to be. “You need to have 5,6 or 7 years of working experience to participate in this competition” or “You don’t seem to be good enough, maybe you shouldn’t compete” as they always say. It’s so sad to hear those things. Coffee is simple and graceful. Why keep creating prejudice and borders around it? Poor innocent coffee!

Thanks again, Thu. I wish you all the best for the upcoming journey.

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