A barista’s journey: One cup at a time with Michael Tan

Barista Michael Tan is always eager to learn more about his craft of choice — coffee! — Pictures by CK Lim
Barista Michael Tan is always eager to learn more about his craft of choice — coffee! — Pictures by CK Lim

KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 12 — Have you ever wondered who the friendly (or, in some cases, not so friendly) barista making your favourite cup of coffee is? I have always enjoyed chatting with baristas at cafés wherever I go. When you get a chance to know them more deeply, you will realise everyone has a different story and reason for joining the profession.

Some may simply be crazy about coffee; others may think it’s a cool job and a great way to meet people. Michael Tan became a barista for the simplest reasons of all: He needed a job.

The 25-year-old Malaysian is now a barista at Tiong Bahru Bakery in Singapore but he started out as a trainee at Starbucks in Kuala Lumpur after leaving high school. He says, “My sister was studying at Berjaya Times Square then and she told me that there were vacancies at Starbucks there. So I went for the interview and got a job on the spot.”

Tan’s career was not motivated by any great love of coffee but rather a desire to follow his family’s advice. He admits, “I didn’t even drink tea back then, much less coffee. However, now I’m drinking at least four to five cups of coffee every day. Talk about a caffeine addiction!”

According to Tan, the training process for new baristas involved attending classes at the Starbucks headquarters, where they were taught the basics of espresso extraction, both theory and practical, as well as milk steaming.

He says, “More than simply studying the technical aspects, we spent as much time on character building. We were taught the importance of customer service. Back at the store, we had a buddy system where a senior will guide the junior through everything, from store cleanliness and work flow to greeting customers and floor management.”

This period of working at Starbucks impressed upon Tan the value of both independent and team work, especially to handle the bar alone at times without compromising on quality of work and customer service. He recalls, “My seniors were very hard on me back then but thanks to them, I learned a lot. Many of these things such as how to plan your shift well and time management aren’t usually taught at independent cafés. However, at established chain cafés such as Starbucks, the foundation is there. Imagine investing more than 50 years perfecting the learning module!”

After laying a strong groundwork for his barista career at Starbucks, Tan continued his journey by joining RAW Coffee, one of the earliest purveyors of specialty coffee in Kuala Lumpur, in October 2012. He says, “I was a supervisor at Starbucks Pavilion at the time but I wasn’t really enjoying the heavy paperwork. Coincidentally, a friend invited me to RAW Coffee, which piqued my interest as I wanted to see for myself how independent cafés operated.”

Skilled baristas are one third of the RAW Coffee equation
Skilled baristas are one third of the RAW Coffee equation

Having no exposure to Third Wave coffee or the just-burgeoning specialty café scene, Tan was enthralled by the whole new world of coffee with single origin beans, micro lot coffees, different brewing methods, and also a dizzying array of roasting, grinding and espresso machines.

He says, “It was love at first sight! Having said that, it was super hard the first few months. I almost gave up as I couldn’t master basics such as milk steaming, getting the right temperature and calibrations in the beginning. I had to relearn everything about coffee.”

Once Tan adjusted to the new environment and work processes, he got even more engrossed in the art and science of coffee brewing. He says, “What RAW Coffee provided me with was the freedom to experiment and learn, such as how different variables affect the final cup of coffee. This ultimately enhanced my knowledge and enabled me to brew the best possible cuppa for my customers.”

Tan and his former colleagues at RAW Coffee
Tan and his former colleagues at RAW Coffee

The enthusiastic yet humble barista credits his mentors during this period, RAW Coffee co-founders Michael Wilson and Amirah Mohammad, as well as other coffee professionals and baristas, for the intense learning experience.

He says, “Michael Wilson has always been an inspiration to me as I learned most of the things I know about coffee from him. He’s like this walking dictionary of coffee know-how! Of course, I’m indebted to many of my awesome customers. They were always patient with my curiosity; I used to make them many cups in different ways and had them taste the coffee and give me feedback. Getting this feedback was essential to me learning even faster.”

Tan’s regulars at RAW Coffee soon became his friends and some would bring back coffee beans from around the world for him to try. He says, “I enjoyed sharing these beans with others. I would brew the coffee for customers and ask them to guess where the beans were from or what they tasted in their cups. It’s amazing how these mini-sharing sessions could bring different people from all walks of life together. In fact, I always believe that coffee tastes best when it’s shared. Every brew creates a bridge to connect people with different ideas and life experiences.”

In December 2013, Tan crossed the Causeway to join Forty Hands Coffee. This was a bold move for the young barista who had never worked outside of Malaysia prior to the move. He says, “I’ve always wanted to work abroad and was considering Taiwan, Melbourne, Hong Kong and Singapore — all specialty coffee hotspots. Ultimately I chose Singapore because it is much closer to home and because our countries share so many things in common in terms of culture.”

After a successful interview with Harry Grover, the owner of both Forty Hands Coffee and Common Man Coffee Roasters, Tan was stationed at Tiong Bahru Bakery, another outpost of Grover’s coffee empire. While posting a seasoned barista at a bakery may sound odd initially, it made sense as the popular bakery has some of the highest volume in terms of cups of coffee sold on the island.

These days, Tan is pulling shots of great coffee at Tiong Bahru Bakery in Singapore (left). A wall of latte art at RAW Coffee (right).
These days, Tan is pulling shots of great coffee at Tiong Bahru Bakery in Singapore (left). A wall of latte art at RAW Coffee (right).

“By moving to Singapore alone, I felt like I’ve grown up and stopped living under my parents’ wings. With such high volumes at Tiong Bahru Bakery, I had to do all I could to survive. Every day was a new challenge but thanks to management skills from Starbucks and coffee knowledge from RAW Coffee, I kept going.”

Consistency is the key to Tan’s earning the admiration of his colleagues and superiors. He explains, “My first cup of coffee must be as good as my 500th cup of the day. It’s about learning how to save my energy and yet remain professional despite the mad rush.”

These days, visiting a specialty café can be terrifying for newbies as some baristas are overly eager to share their coffee knowledge at the expense of the customer’s enjoyment. In Tan’s opinion, “the majority of customers don’t really care about the science of coffee; all they really want is just a good cup of coffee. Of course, I’m a geek about coffee too, but it’s more important to give customers what they want.”

Will opening his own café be the next step for Tan? It certainly seems to be on the minds of most baristas I talk to these days. He smiles and says, “Right now, I’m just one happy barista who is content making a cuppa for anyone who wants to drink good coffee.”

RAW Coffee has recently closed and the former management has started a new coffee venture:
RGB & The Bean Hive
35, Jalan Damai, Off Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur
Open Mon-Fri 10:30am-6:30pm; Sat-Sun 10:30am-6pm
Tel: 03-21811329

Catch Michael Tan in action at:
Tiong Bahru Bakery @ Eng Hoon
56 Eng Hoon St, Singapore
Open Sun-Thu 8am-8pm; Fri-Sat 8am-10pm
Tel: +65-62203430

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