News

He's a rock star coffee maker OF A BARISTA

When it comes to coffee, you could say that Mr Suhaimie Sukiman is one of the best.

Today, the 32-year-old is a certified sensory judge at the World Barista Championships, a renowned international coffee competition.

There are only 43 such judges in the world. He is also a certified latte art judge and will be one of the judges at the Singapore National Barista Championship next month.

The popularity of latte art, where baristas create designs on a cup of coffee, has glamorised the job, but Mr Suhaimie says that dedication to mastering the fundamental principles is key.

He picked up the trade when he was 16, at a global chain which has many outlets in Singapore.

"I was skateboarding in the CBD and I saw a sign that they were hiring. I went and tried for the job and fell in love with it in my first year," he says.

To be certified as a sensory judge at the world championships, he had to pass two exams and perform well at two practical assessments.

"One of them involved blind-tasting 26 cups of coffees, some of which had multiple flavours in one. I had to identify at least 22 correctly," he says.

To raise his chances, he quit smoking and cut down on spicy food so that his palate would be as clean and sensitive as possible.

The sacrifices paid off when he was one of the eight in his cohort to be certified, out of 26 people last year.

Barista-hopefuls often attend courses at Toby's Estate - an Australian cafe off Rodyk Street, where Mr Suhaimie is now the coffee operations manager - where they hope to do latte art without mastering the basics.

"When they can't even pull a shot or froth milk properly, latte art gets very frustrating because it's about getting the right colour and creating perfect symmetry," says the veteran.

To master the pulling of a coffee shot, trainees undergo three hours of theory lesson and spend about one month practising.

"If they have a keen learning attitude, we may accelerate their progression. Often, a barista not only makes the coffee, but doubles as dishwasher and waiter. That's something most people don't see," he says.

While coffee remains the source of his passion, being a barista is about being in the "people business", he says.

Some customers get so attached to their favourite barista that they turn into divas when they are served by someone they are not familiar with, he adds.

"I had a regular customer who rejected three cups of coffee made by a colleague of mine.

"I was in the back room and got wind of the commotion. I told him I would make him a cup, but what I actually did was to take the third cup, fiddle with it behind the counter, before bringing it back to the guy.

"He told me it tasted like a million bucks," he says.

Being able to hold a conversation with just about anyone is also an important trait of a good barista, he says.

"Multitasking is important. You have got to be able to make coffee and talk to people at the same time. All the better if you can tell the customer about the coffee beans' origins, down to the number of daughters its farmer has," he adds.

"You get a really great sense of satisfaction when you make someone's gloomy day better," he says.

A couple of local celebrities he has served include TV personality Najib Ali and model-VJ Denise Keller.

He has had his fair share of difficult customers.

A particularly memorable incident involved a female customer who asked for the freshest bagels in the store.

"I brought out all the bagels we had and allowed her to prod and pinch them while they were wrapped with cling-wrap, because she was so adamant and raised her voice.

"Still, she was not satisfied with the range. She shouted that they were very hard and threw the bag of them in my face," he recalls.

Under pressure to be a good example to the staff who were looking up to him, Mr Suhaimie suppressed his anger and embarrassment and said: "You're welcome."

But what happened next warmed his heart: "Another customer who witnessed what had happened came forward to comfort me and actually bought a bagel from me," he says.

Despite the long hours, most of which are spent on his feet, there are perks to the job.

Coffee brought him and his wife together, he says. She was a barista at a cafe he worked at and is now a school programme executive. They have a four-year-old daughter.

Mr Suhaimie has come a long way. He currently earns about five to six times the $1,200 paid to a newbie barista.

He is such a rock star in the local coffee scene that he can't enjoy a cup in a cafe without being recognised by fellow baristas.

"Some of them feel stressed out and don't want to make me a cup. They get a colleague to do it instead. So I really treasure it when I can walk into a cafe and 'be unknown'," he says.

But if you think his ambition is to be a cafe owner, you'd be wrong.

"My dream is to open a shop selling my mother's laksa. It's seriously to die for," he says.

Secrets of the trade

1 Big bubbles and dry foam are a quick way to spot poorly-made coffee.

2 Quit smoking and cut down on spicy food. It helps you have a better palate.

3 Go the extra mile. I once wrote a note and formed a smiley face on a cup of take-out coffee, after realising the customer had a hard time getting through our line. It earned me a letter of commendation.