WE live in an age where mornings begin with a mouthful.
Mr John Ting, a 27-year-old barista from Spinelli, is representing Singapore at the first Asia Barista Championship. One venti caramel Frappuccino no whip non-fat decaf to go, please!
The McEighties are over. The phenomenon of $4 coffee is upon us.
At the inaugural Asia Barista Championship (ABC), a two-day event which ends today, it all comes together.
It’s the Coffee Olympics, where baristas (the ever-chatty guys and gals behind the coffee counters) compete for the coveted title of Asia’s Best Barista.
It’s no joke. In the US, where the idea first began, champion baristas shoot to mini celebrity-dom, complete with their own groupies.
On the ABC stage at Singapore Expo hangs a giant clock which looks like it belongs more at an NBA match. It will time the baristas as they attempt the impossible – make 12 perfect cuppas in 15 minutes.
It is an unlikely convergence of sport and beverage business – the backdrop of the stage is plastered with sponsors’ logos, the same type football managers use for post-match interviews.
But coffee-making is not exactly an adrenalin-pumping activity to watch.
‘Five minutes have passed and the contestant is down to his cappuccino,’ the commentator booms.
An army of photographers flashes and the crowd sits on edge. Up on stage, a phenomenon you watch every morning through impatient, blurry eyes, unfolds.
Nifty fingerwork by a contestant to ‘draw’ a leaf on the foam of his cappuccino draws rapturous applause from the audience, made up of groupies and people from the coffee industry in dark suits.
Contestants choose their own competition music for their routine. One chose a classical piece, while another went for Latin jazz.
Their every move is nifty and precise. A scoop here, a gentle pounding there, a sure-as-hell unscrewing of a bottle cap.
But as the clock counts down, a contestant’s hand starts to tremble ever so slightly as she pours foam from a pitcher into a tiny cup.
The camera zooms in. The crowd holds its breath.
On one side stand the technical judges with notepad and pen.
They are the guys who will deduct points for an elbow bent at the wrong angle while you’re pulling out that foam.
Behind them sits the panel of stone-faced sensory judges, meditatively stirring the cups, gazing contemplatively into the dark liquid.
They are not looking for tasty coffee. They are looking for the right body, acidity, flavour, aroma and aftertaste.
Even the temperature of the cup matters.
Mr Andrew Hetzel, 35, a coffee cupper (professional coffee taster), says: ‘These days, coffee machines produce coffee in a very precise manner, correct to one tenth of a degree. A cup of the wrong temperature can ruin that.’
One tenth of a degree? Why on earth…
‘Coffee that is too hot becomes sour because it loses the sweetness of the milk. Coffee that is too cold tastes chalky, because the sugars in the milk become lactose.’
Mr Hetzel smiles and shrugs. ‘Milk science,’ he says.
Backstage, the suitcases of the contestants lie about half-open, revealing their padded Mafia-style interiors.
Instead of a gun, you see a – get this – whipping cream charger (a flask-like device used to produce whip cream) and little CO2 canisters (bullet-shaped things which puts the whip into whipped cream).
Bottles of mysterious liquids – pink, orange and magenta – lie around, reminders of the strange things people add to their kopi-o these days.
Some contestants even brought their own milk cartons from home.
Mr Hetzel says: ‘The baristas practise very hard for each competition. Some even wake up in the middle of the night to make their espresso so that they can cope with the time differences.’
Contestants come from 11 countries, ranging from Indonesia to New Zealand, and also, more interestingly, the tea-drinking countries of China and India.
Chinese contestant Soon Quan Xiu, 20, says: ‘In China, only the old people drink tea these days. The young people drink coffee because they want to be like (people in) the West.’
Mr John Ting, 27, from Spinelli is flying the Singapore flag at the ABC.
The drink he invented for the judges is the Purple Dream, a blend of lavender and espresso.
‘It calms and excites,’ Mr Ting says.
Philosophy will gain you points, a peek into the judge’s manual reveals.
But philosophy is far from the minds of the addicted zombie masses for whom coffee is little more than medicine in a styrofoam cup.
It’s what the ABC hopes to change.
Mr Hetzel says: ‘Saying coffee is only good for a caffeine fix is like saying food is only good for giving energy.
‘Coffee is art. It’s a show, it’s a performance.’
All for $4.