IF you think being a barista is a dead-end job, it’s time you wake up and smell the coffee. The coffee industry in Malaysia today is about as big and complex as the flavours you now get in your cup o’ joe.
Being a barista is now just the entry point to a career in coffee, which can lead to you becoming a roaster, bean sourcer, machine technician, cafe manager or even the owner of your own cafe.
The one prerequisite for all these jobs? A passion for coffee.
It is this passion that will make all the long hours, insanely busy days spent preparing endless cups of coffee, and sometimes having to deal with rude and difficult customers worth it.
Master roaster Jamie Chin, 29, for one, loves her new career in the coffee industry. “I used to have a monotonous job,” said Chin, currently working for Sprezzatura Coffee in Petaling Jaya.
“Now I am in a job I love and I’m grateful for the opportunity that came my way.”
That passion and commitment shows from the way she sits patiently at the roasting machine, meticulously roasting batch after batch of coffee.
While it may seem like hard work, for Chin, who juggles being a roaster as well as a barista, it’s all worth it.
“What makes me the happiest is when customers tell me they love the coffee here,” she said with a huge smile.
The coffee trail
Not everybody who starts out as a barista stays a barista forever. For example, within a month of joining Sprezzatura as a barista, Chin climbed the ladder to become a roaster.
Like many young Malaysians, her love affair with the dark brew started with visiting the specialty coffee shops that have been blossoming throughout the country. Unlike many others, however, her love didn’t stop at coffee appreciation.
Tired of her old job, she decided to enrol in a three-day barista course.
Her confidence bolstered by her new-found skills, she took a job as a barista, leaving behind her nine-year career as a Montessori kindergarten supervisor.
She’s now in charge of roasting the green coffee beans at the cafe, which is a small batch coffee roaster, meaning it roasts beans in one kilogramme batches.
“What excites me about this job is that there are so many different things I want to experiment with,” she said.
“Different beans, different blends … I want to get the best out of every single bean.”
Daryl Chew, 28, is also living his dream of working in the coffee industry.
The manager of The Grumpy Cyclist in Petaling Jaya, he started off as a part-time employee, before embarking on a full-time career in coffee. Now, he manages an entire cafe!
“I did a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and International Studies!” said Chew with a laugh. “This is definitely not what I thought I would be doing.
“But through this job, I’ve managed to tick off one more item on my bucket list – learning to brew good coffee.”
It’s not always sweet
Many of those who have been thinking of switching from regular office jobs to the wonderful world of coffee would be familiar with the oft-repeated refrain, “baristas make money?”, from well-meaning family and friends.
“Baristas get paid between RM1,800 to RM2,500,” said Daniel Liew, 42, the academic director of Barista Guild Asia (BGA), the body that governs the Malaysian national championships for coffee.
However, moving up the ranks, the pay scale could increase dramatically.
“Cafe managers earn anywhere between RM3,000 to RM10,000, depending on whether the cafe is new or part of a large chain,” said Liew.
When Chin made the bold move to switch careers, she faced some pressure from her family, as the school she resigned from was owned by her aunt (#awkward) and she had to take a pay cut.
“It was a struggle,” she said frankly. “I have expenses to bear, like my car and my rent. But if you love what you do, you don’t work a day in your life.”
However, a below-average paycheck isn’t the case for everyone in the industry.
“I would say that my pay matches my contemporaries’,” said Chew, who used to own a car service outlet and also faced parental pressure when he started his career.
Happily, Chin’s family has come to accept her “unorthodox” new career, and have all made their way to the cafe to support her.
“So many people want to get started on a coffee career but don’t know how,” said Liew. “So, we train baristas according to the syllabus from the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe.”
BGA has trained over 120 cafes and certified over 400 baristas in the three years it has been in business, a testament to how far the coffee industry in Malaysia has come.
BGA student Caryne Ng, 35, is one such example. “I’ve always dreamt of owning my own cafe,” said the former assistant customer relations manager at a fashion firm. “That’s why I joined BGA – to gain more knowledge about coffee.”
Ng was also quick to emphasise that being a barista isn’t just about taking a three-day course. “You still need a lot of practice to hone your skills,” she said.
“It’s important to understand that baristas make a huge difference to the coffee, so they need to know what they’re doing,” said Liew. “Being a barista is not just about the latte art.”
Naturally, parents tend to be concerned when their children decide to be baristas, and to that, Liew said: “Coffee is a massive industry. Being a barista is just the first step! There are so many other ways a barista’s career can grow.”
Where can you go?
“The possibilities are limitless!” said Chew. “You can be a roaster, or someone who sources the beans, or even go into the technical side of things and specialise in coffee-making equipment.”
On the training end, there is a huge demand for trainers due to the lack of good baristas out there.
“Not everybody can be a good barista, and not every good barista can be a trainer,” said Liew. “I am constantly on the lookout for people who are the perfect combination of barista and teacher.”
And, of course, you could start your own cafe!
Jaclyn Ching, 25, started her cafe, Jac’s On The 8th, about a year ago. “Running your own business allows you to make your own decisions,” she said. “But that is also stressful because the burden is all on you.”
Despite having to manage staff and suppliers, something she never had to do in her former corporate finance career, she is loving her new life. “Of course, it’s not easy. But with passion, you will pull through,” she said.
Ng, about to leave BGA and start out as a barista, is brimming with excitement about her future coffee career and how far the industry has come.
“Ten years ago, having a career in coffee wasn’t much of an option,” she said. “But with Malaysian coffee culture rapidly developing, I feel proud telling people that I’m a barista.”