World class: Our coffee champion and his coach

Three-time Malaysian Barista Champion Jason Loo (2017, 2015 and 2014)(left). Joey Mah is perhaps Malaysia’s best barista coach, having trained the national champions since 2014 (right). – Pictures by Choo Choy May, and courtesy of Jason Loo and Joey Mah
Three-time Malaysian Barista Champion Jason Loo (2017, 2015 and 2014)(left). Joey Mah is perhaps Malaysia’s best barista coach, having trained the national champions since 2014 (right). – Pictures by Choo Choy May, and courtesy of Jason Loo and Joey Mah

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 21 — In our country’s brief history of barista competitions, there really hasn’t been a barista quite like Jason Loo. Thrice the Malaysian Barista Champion (2017, 2015 and 2014), Loo has gone from strength to strength.

His crowning glory thus far may well be representing Malaysia for a second time at the World Barista Championship (WBC) barely a couple of months ago. The 2017 edition in Seoul saw over 60 competitors from around the globe competing — and Loo took seventh place, almost breaking into the finals.

It’s quite an accomplishment to represent Malaysia at the WBC, not once but twice.

Loo, who heads the coffee teams at The Red Bean Bag and Yellow Brick Road, says, “It has been a long journey to represent Malaysia on the world stage. I feel satisfied and proud with this achievement for our country. The hard work and determination of these past few years have definitely paid off!”

Furthermore, this has been the highest placing for Malaysia ever.

Visiting coffee farms means seeing the source – the actual coffee plants – up close and personal (left). Mah is able to select the best green beans by dealing directly with the coffee farmers (right)
Visiting coffee farms means seeing the source – the actual coffee plants – up close and personal (left). Mah is able to select the best green beans by dealing directly with the coffee farmers (right)

Loo’s competition coach and close friend, Joey Mah (of Artisan Roastery and Three Little Birds) recalls, “We went to the debriefing room going through our score sheet. We were quite happy with our results and thinking how can we be better. And all of a sudden someone came over and told us that we should be very proud...”

Once they found out about Loo’s ranking, Mah broke down in tears. He explains, “I cried not because we didn’t go though, not because we were not good enough. I cried because we have gone this far. And I’m proud of the whole team after years of training and effort we put in.”

Loo agrees that it was teamwork that enabled them to compete at a higher level than before, despite Malaysia officially entering the competition only three years earlier.

In 2016, Keith Koay — part of Loo’s support team at WBC 2017 — was ranked number 16; Loo placed 27 in 2015. Both Malaysian Barista Champions were coached by Mah, who is now closely identified with the Malaysian coffee scene.

Loo learned more about coffee roasting by judging at the recent TISCA (Taiwan International Specialty Coffee Association) roasting competition in Taichung
Loo learned more about coffee roasting by judging at the recent TISCA (Taiwan International Specialty Coffee Association) roasting competition in Taichung

“Joey, Keith and I had been working closely to understand how the competition works, studying each detail and analysing our mistakes from past experience. Improving our technical work flow enabled us to offer the best experience for the judges.

We kept practising the routine until I was really smooth during the actual presentation,” says Loo.

Every year of competing brought fresh lessons for the team. Mah says, “The first year with Jason was more to discover and explore. No expectations. When Keith competed, we knew we had to be better in technical and skills. We worked hard to improve on that and Jason was part of that. We trained together and when Jason competed again, he had the skill and experience but not the understanding of the coffee buying process.”

To make up for this dearth in Loo’s arsenal, the team travelled to Colombia to meet with the coffee farmers directly. Loo says, “Farm visits are important for sustainability and traceability. I can speak to my producer to improve the processing and farm management.

Loo (left) and Mah (right) tasting every cup and continuously tweaking till it’s just right
Loo (left) and Mah (right) tasting every cup and continuously tweaking till it’s just right

“By doing this, I can help to raise the quality of the coffee, which in turn increases their market value. We can buy better coffee directly, paying them what they deserve for the hard work. This will create sustainable trading for many years to come.”
Besides sourcing and processing their competition coffee, Mah also wanted to purchase better beans for his roastery. He says, “We have been working with Pedro (the farm owner) for many years now but we want more – nano lots, specific processed coffees that taste exceptional. There are always lots that are too small. This time we committed to the size and the price that was asked, and we managed to get the coffees we wanted.”

After competing for the past five years in various competitions, Loo has been expanding his horizons beyond being a contestant. Recently, the affable barista went over to the other side of the judging table to evaluate the best espresso at the recent TISCA (Taiwan International Specialty Coffee Association) roasting competition in Taichung, Taiwan.

He says, “Definitely a great experience on how different roasters would roast the beans to bring out the best flavour profile. This will only improve my overall understanding when I taste different coffees.

“In turn, this helps me perfect my coffee calibration – so crucial to a flawless presentation on the world stage. It’s only 15 minutes that I get to shine so I must make the best out of it, to put in my best performance to showcase our country’s passion.”

Loo in action at the World Barista Championship 2017 in Seoul
Loo in action at the World Barista Championship 2017 in Seoul

However, despite all the acclaim over the team’s achievements, Mah notes that he has only one desire moving forward: “I just want to enjoy my cup of coffee. I started my journey hoping one day I can go into any café in Malaysia and coffee will be great. I believe we are not far off. We as a country have improved greatly over the years.”

His protégé – though perhaps less a Padawan and more of a Jedi Master already – agrees, adding that “What has kept me motivated all those years is simple: to make and drink good coffee.”
To make and drink good coffee. A motto worthy of a barista champion indeed.

Look out for Jason Loo at The Red Beanbag (www.facebook.com/theredbeanbag/) and Yellow Brick Road (www.facebook.com/yellowbrickroadcafe/). Ditto for Joey Mah at Artisan Roastery (www.facebook.com/artisanroastery/) and Three Little Birds (www.facebook.com/threelittlebirdscoffee/).

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