It’s hard to believe that Keith Koay, the winner of Malaysia Barista Championships in 2016 and 2018 got hooked into this career by accident. Like many of us, he was just a student looking for part-time work to make ends meet. He’s certainly come a long way since then; winning championships, competing internationally and owning his own place called One Half Coffee Bar.
Brewing for World Championships
As Malaysia’s barista champion of 2018, Keith will be heading over to Amsterdam in June to compete in the World Barista Championship (WBC). Local baristas have been representing Malaysia in this tournament for the past three years. In fact, Keith ranked 16th at the WBC in 2016. Then in 2017, under the skilful hands of Jason Loo of The Red Bean Bag and Yellow Brick Road, Malaysia placed 7th, which is just one place short of moving on to the finals! It is astounding how far Malaysia has come in just three short years.
This year, Keith is aiming for 6th place. “If we make it through, it’s a big thing for Malaysia’s coffee industry. We’re considered very new.” We are certainly excited at this prospect. Go Malaysia!
What does it take to win though? We found out that winning isn’t just about how good of a cup of coffee you can make. Apparently, judges evaluate not only taste but whether the personality of the coffee matches the barista. “The personality of the coffee and you. Does it match? The chemistry; the aura in everything. The full package.”
One Whiff and He Was Hooked
Keith remembers being a student just looking for some work during exam break. A café had opened looking for new hires and he went in to try his luck. Within five minutes Keith was hired. Within one day, he was hooked.
“I wasn’t interested in coffee at first,” said Keith. Asked whether he liked coffee before becoming a barista, his immediate response was, “No, not at all. I didn’t need it. I didn’t have to drink it.”
“It’s how the process actually works and how much of the taste we can perceive and manipulate.” – Keith Koay.
His first day working at the café dramatically changed his outlook. Keith was impressed with everything that went on behind the machine to create a single cup of coffee. He describes it as a sensory experience. “It’s how the process actually works and how much of the taste we can perceive and manipulate,” said Keith.
So, what does he think of coffee now? Keith laughs and says, “Now I need it… Everyday.”
Want to Be a Barista? Think Twice
Being able to make a decent living from being a barista is not easy. “Think twice, seriously. It’s very tough,” advises Keith.
First you must consider the local interest in coffee. Based on Keith’s own experience being in the industry for a few years now, things have slowed down. Three years ago, people would come in almost every day looking for work, particularly interested in becoming a barista. Today, they are just looking for part-time work to make some extra money.
Once you are a barista and know the basics, it’s the type of profession you have to invest money into in order to improve and advance. You have to spend on drinking coffee, tasting all variations. As a result, this may end up weighing quite heavily on your pocket. With the salary you start out with, it’s hard. “Almost impossible,” says Keith.
40 Cups to Survive, 100 to Succeed
If you’re interested in setting up your own café, be aware that it’s extremely competitive. For a small operation with minimal staff, you need to at least expect to make 40 cups a day to survive. That’s 40 cups minimum!
“In Malaysia, to make 100 cups of coffee, it is considered good business.” – Keith Koay
According to Keith, the demand for drinking coffee is not as high when compared to other places. In Australia, for example, they sell an average of 1000 cups of coffee per day. Meanwhile, in Malaysia, it’s hard to hit 100. “In Malaysia, to make 100 cups of coffee, it is considered good business,” says Keith. “It’s very hard to sustain your own shop. We see a lot of friends close down. It’s very heartbreaking.”
Running a Business is About Interactions
There’s a difference between just being a barista and owning a business. As a barista, playing behind the machine allows you the freedom to just geek out about coffee, the process and sensory experience. Consequently, you don’t really have to think about customer service. On the other hand, as business owner, you have to enjoy the interaction with customers, says Keith. You start to understand where your customers come from and you get to know their background.
Luckily, this is something Keith loves doing. “One thing that I enjoy the most after so long is the interaction between me and my customers. It’s a pleasure to see people coming back for your product. There’s so many coffee shops out there. There must be some reason they come back. That’s what keeps us doing what we love.” It’s quite interesting.
If you’re passionate and hardworking, owning a place and being in this industry can be “very, very fun,” says Keith.
Collaboration and Specialisation are Key
If you are looking to check out Keith’s place, One Half Coffee Bar can be found in Random Food Store and Ilaika. At Random Food Store you’ll get a fuller experience. At least fuller in the tummy! They serve food (baos made by Buncit Bao-Bar) in addition to coffee and cakes. Meanwhile, at Ilaika your coffee comes with retail therapy in the form of beautiful products made by local designers and handmade goods.
Collaborations work for One Half because it allows them to share cost in addition to supporting other local businesses that they love. “Not only to share rental but a new concept. We like local products,” says Keith.
Most of all, collaborations allow One Half to continue to focus on what they are best at, which is making coffee. “We only want to focus on what we are good at,” said Keith. “For me and my partner, we are not familiar with running a kitchen. We do not enjoy cooking. If we force ourselves into that business I think it’s quite bad for ourselves and our product.”
Sweet Smell of Beans
Like many serious coffee cafes, the beans behind One Half Coffee are from Artisan Roast, a true pioneer in the Malaysian coffee industry. Unlike other cafes, Keith’s involvement in the beans go beyond just buying to actually being involved in the quality of the roast. Consequently, One Half Coffee’s beans are uniquely their own; the emphasis being on aroma with sweetness.
“We customize our own roasting profile. Our coffee is unique.” – Keith Koay
“We customize our own roasting profile,” says Keith. The beans may be from Artisan Roast which is already high quality but “our coffee is unique” and specially created just for them.
Since they specialize in coffee, they also provide you with options galore. At any one time, One Half Coffee has 5 to 10 different beans for you to choose from. We are definitely spoilt for choice here!
Beyond the beans, water makes a big difference in the flavor of coffee. Who knew?! “The end product of your coffee is 90% water. So, we use good quality water.”
Barista Approved Coffee Joints
We assume that a good barista should love his or her own coffee. But we also sometimes wonder where else they would they go for a cup of coffee. Where would an award-winning barista like Keith Koay go for coffee other than enjoying a cup he makes himself?
Keith recommends Seraph Awaken located in his hometown of Klang where the coffee scene is really hardly present at all. According to Keith, the folks at that run the cafe deserve recognition for making it work and serving up really good coffee in a location that is not used to high end coffee. It is “one of the best for coffee in Malaysia.” Besides Seraph Awakens, Keith frequents other spots including The Roast Things and Yellow Brick Road.
Keith has generously shared One Half’s signature mocktail recipe with us. It’s his own take on the Jungle Bird, a drink that originated from Malaysia that has become a classic cocktail found all over the world. We are so lucky because Keith’s coffee mocktail rendition of the Jungle Bird is AHmazing! Check out the recipe here.