Getting your name and coffee right all in a day’s work for baristas

Isabel Russel preparing coffee using the siphon brewing method. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
Isabel Russel preparing coffee using the siphon brewing method. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

KUALA LUMPUR, April 1 — Whether it is instant or brewed, coffee is a must-have drink for some.

From the uncles at a kopitiam to baristas at cafes, making a good cup, however, can be an art form.

And if you are a barista, there is the added pressure of getting the name of the customer written on the cup correct.

Starbucks Malaysia barista Isabel Russel said while the mistakes are never intentional, getting a name right always fills her with a great sense of achievement.

“I’m okay with spelling names. I don’t misspell them on purpose and I actually get excited when I write out the name correctly,” she said.

Russel has been in the barista trade for more than a decade but her excitement over coffee hasn’t dulled one bit.

Not bad considering she was indifferent towards the caffeinated beverage prior to working as a barista.

“When I first worked here, I had to go through coffee tasting which introduced me to all the different aspects of coffee,” she said.

“I used to be someone who never drank coffee but I started loving it as my journey continued with Starbucks.”

Russel is now stationed at the newly opened Starbucks Reserve cafe at Berjaya Times Square where single-origin coffees and brewing methods such as the pour-over, Chemex, and siphon are the star attractions.

She previously worked in core stores of the coffee franchise before transitioning to the Reserve cafes where customers can learn more about what goes into their cup of Joe.

“We tell our customers more about the coffee like where it was grown and what the taste characteristics are going to be like.

“When you’re sitting at the bar, you can watch the coffee being prepared. In this way, there’s a lot of connection between the barista and the customer.”

Isabel Russel’s coffee knowledge allows enthusiasts to get up close and personal with their favourite beverage. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
Isabel Russel’s coffee knowledge allows enthusiasts to get up close and personal with their favourite beverage. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

A lot of work

Russel’s duties involve offering a highly customised experience to customers where their personal taste comes into play when preparing the coffee.

“Most customers that walk into a Reserve store are new to the experience so we are the ones who introduce the coffee and flavours to them.

“There are customers who even have certain baristas that they like to brew coffee for them. Some prefer coffee with more acidity or intensity so it depends on the individual.”

The Berjaya Times Square cafe is a busy hub serving anywhere between 300 and 400 customers daily but Russel emphasises how quality is just as important as speed when it comes to preparing great coffee.

“Just because we’re rushing through one beverage does not mean we can speed through the brewing process. It requires a certain pace so we don’t overextract or underextract the coffee.

“We have to take care of every single cup which is why there is a lot of teamwork that happens behind the Reserve bar,” she explained.

Russel is now a seasoned Starbucks veteran with more than 10 years of coffee-making experience under her belt and even a few competition accolades to boot.

She was a finalist in the Starbucks Malaysia Coffee Ambassador’s Cup in 2015 and later snagged first place in the Starbucks Malaysia Barista Championship in 2017.

Learning never ends

When she’s not busy flexing her coffee-making muscles in the cafe or onstage, Russel spends her time refining her talents through training and self-study.

Her latest endeavour includes perfecting the skill of latte art and sharing her knowledge with her fellow baristas.

Isabel Russel pouring latte art in the shape of a swan. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
Isabel Russel pouring latte art in the shape of a swan. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

After starting out with the basic heart shape, Russel can now pour tulips, rosettes, and even swans onto milk-based coffee beverages.

“Latte art is something that I recently picked up. I learned it through a lot of YouTube videos and I practiced in the store.

“It’s really nice when other baristas see me doing it and say ‘wow, you can do that?’. Then I would help teach them as well.”

With any challenge that pops up at work, whether it’s related to spelling difficulties or something more serious, Russel is adamant about learning from her mistakes and persevering through difficult times.

“I went through a lot of ups and downs and disappointments but the most valuable lesson I learned was to not give up.

“I don’t take failure as the end, I always do something about it.”

Related Articles