10 things about: Keith Koay, Malaysia Barista Champion 2016

Picture courtesy of Keith Koay
Picture courtesy of Keith Koay

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KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 28 — It isn’t easy being the champion. After winning the 2016 Malaysia Barista Championships (MBC 2016) last month, Keith Koay is already hard at work preparing for the 2016 World Barista Championships (WBC 2016) to be held from June 23-25 in Dublin.

The 24-year-old barista majored in accounting and finance at SEGi College and is now brewing cuppas at VCR, a café in Jalan Galloway, Bukit Bintang. For his winning cuppas at MBC 2016, Koay used a Panama Centro De Especialdades coffee roasted by Joey Mah of Artisan Roastery.

Koay’s signature drink was inspired by cocktails. Seeking to recreate bitters without alcohol, Koay cold steeped a mixture of grapefruit peels, grapefruit flesh and wild honey from Yunnan, before sous-viding it.

Blended with freshly squeezed cherry juice, agape syrup, Earl Grey tea and the aforementioned Panama Centro De Especialdades, the resultant drink is not unlike its creator — youthful, perhaps, but surprisingly complex.

In his own words:

When I was young, I was always picky about my drinks. (Food as well, but not overly so.) I would only go to the mamak stalls that can prepare my teh O ais well. I also made my own ice blended drinks at home, since I was 12.

I started becoming attracted to coffee during the exam week in college. It was so stressful, and I found coffee actually helped. To me, coffee was real.

I started making coffee when I was 22, as a part timer in a chain coffee shop. I was quite desperate to have extra cash to spend. A coffee shop near my college was hiring, so I thought, why not make some money by doing stuff that I love? That’s twice the happiness!

I started working at VCR after graduation. It was Ivan Koh (the current VCR Food Director and Operations Manager) who invited me to join. He told me, “I see a lot of room for you to improve here, at VCR.” So I decided to try my luck and magic happened.

Back when I was a beginner, the main challenge was that everyone was unsure of what they are doing. The theories and understanding that everyone had about coffee were different and sometimes contradicting. I found it confusing, too complicated. My job also involves tasting a lot of coffees, which can cause acid reflux. That is a miserable feeling.

Later, when I became an experienced barista, and after all the hassle that I personally went through, I decided I wanted the new baristas to learn in an easier way. Much more straight forward. But this takes some time; it’s not as easy as I thought it will be. Barista training is more than just training but also a change of lifestyle, an appreciation of the beautiful craft.

In preparing for this year’s Malaysia Barista Championship, instead of choosing my coach, I would say that it was Joey Mah who made his choice to coach me this year. As a first impression, he seems like a fun guy to hang out with, though he does look a little bit too cool at times. (I sincerely hope you read this, Joey!)

We started the training one year ago. We focused on tasting most of the time; it is a skill that people tend to overlook. Joey also wanted me to understand myself a bit more, so that I can emphasise my character. Also, my presentation, the choice of words — all at a very early stage of training. This was mind blowing as I always thought we would select the coffee first, then a routine, before coming out with ideas and my signature beverage!

After the recent win at the MBC 2016, I can feel my growth, not only in terms of barista skills, but overall. It’s a little bit glamorous, of course. But still, I sincerely hope to inspire all the baristas in Malaysia with my efforts. It’s my efforts, and not talent, that has gotten me this far.

Joey and I have started brainstorming some ideas for the WBC, but the main storytelling has to come from myself. It’s something that I want to share with people, something that I love most about coffee. We promise to do our best, to make Malaysia proud.

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