WHO IS HE? Ryan Tan, 29, won the annual Singapore National Barista Championship from 2011 to 2013 and has also been named Singapore National Latte Art champ thrice. Ironically, he was “forced into becoming a barista”.
Ryan quips: “I was doing a finance and economics degree in Melbourne when my parents sent me for a barista course so I could help out with the family business.” Ryan’s parents ran local coffee company Papa Palheta, which they sold to a relative who went on to set up cafes like Chye Seng Huat Hardware and Loysel’s Toy. Ryan put his studies on hold and returned three years ago to start Strangers’ Reunion, before expanding the business with two more cafes, Strangers’ At Work and Waffle Slayer. A fourth, The Curious Palette, opens next month on Prinsep Street.
1. DON’T ASK FOR “STRONG COFFEE BEANS”.
“The question we get most often when people order coffee is, “Which type of coffee bean is the strongest?” It’s a common misconception that different beans have different strengths. The intensity of a coffee is simply based on the coffee-to-water ratio. The less water used, the stronger it is,” he explains.
2. FORGET WINE PAIRING. HOW ABOUT COFFEE PAIRING INSTEAD?
#Cafehopping is set to get, ahem, fancier at Ryan’s soon-to-be-opened café, The Curious Palette, which will offer food and coffee pairings. “We’ll pair two different dishes, like a triple chocolate cake and tiramisu, with two types of coffee, like Brazilian and Ethiopian [brews] so that customers can experience which combination tastes better.”
3. IT’S NOT GOOD COFFEE IF IT SCALDS YOU. OBVIOUSLY.
“Some customers send back their coffees ’cos they think it’s not hot enough. This happens more often with the older generation. Coffee is traditionally served scorching hot in Singapore and people sit there stirring till it’s cool. They expect their coffees to be served at a temperature that’s hot enough to scald their tongues, when it really should be about 65°C (laughs). Any hotter than that and the coffee will taste burnt. Steamed fresh milk will become over-caramelised and turn bitter. I find myself in a difficult position ‘cos there’s no nice way to tell customers that serving coffee that’s too hot will destroy my product (guffaws). I usually compromise with this trick: I’d serve the coffee with the rim of the cup heated to about 100°C. Customers are usually satisfied when they touch a [sufficiently] hot cup (laughs). If they send the coffee back again, we have no choice but to brew the coffee to their desired temperature.”
(Above) Java jaunts: Ryan’s award-winning latte art design.
4. DO NOT ADD SUGAR.
“You don’t need sugar for specialty coffee — it masks the original flavour of the coffee beans. Some [competition grade] coffee beans can cost up to $100 per kg, so it’s a pity when people add sugar or ask for it to be brewed with chocolate into mocha. We even have people who come in and tell us, “We want 50 per cent sugar level.” It’s not bubble tea! Although we offer sugar to go with our customers’ coffee, it’s more of a formality. I don’t think Singaporeans are sufficiently educated about coffee, so it’s the barista’s job to educate them.”
5. NEVER REQUEST FOR CUSTOMISED LATTE ART.
“Latte art is like garnishing; it shouldn’t be the reason people order coffee!” says Ryan. It took over a year — and “400 to 600 cups a day” — for Ryan to perfect his craft to win his first latte art competition four years ago. Even the simplest of designs like a heart shape requires a very, very steady hand pouring steamed milk at a constant rate and pressure into the cup. We gave it a shot and realised that a slight jerk will leave you with... a broken heart. This is also why customers shouldn’t ask Ryan for customised latte art. “Some people request for complicated designs that they’ve seen on the Internet, like 11 tulip [shapes] in one cup. We’d do it if we have time, but sometimes we’re just too busy (laughs).”
6. SKIP DRINKS WITH 3D LATTE ART.
Cute foam kittens and blooms are no good for your premium-priced coffee, says Ryan. “3D latte art requires chilled foam which affects the temperature and taste of the drink. It’s also not very hygienic; the cup of coffee sits there for some time while the foam art is being created, and tools like skewers are used to ‘draw’ on the foam.”