Kinyei cafe superstar Sakana Long recently competed against the region’s best baristas at the FHA 2014 Barista Challenge in Singapore’s Expo Center between April 8 -11. Asia Pacific’s top baristas were invited to the event with 13 countries represented, including Cambodia, which sent along Sakana. It was Kinyei’s first international competition, and followed the cafe’s second national win in Phnom Penh at the CRA Cambodia Barista Championships.
The 2012 Cambodia Barista Championships winner and Sakana’s coach, Untac Nem, accompanied Sakana over on her first ever international flight, and Kinyei’s co-founder Melina Chan met them in Singapore to help with logistics and cheerleading.
This event was truly at another level – most competitors owned their own roasteries and cafes. The competition itself is a 15 minute performance where 12 coffees need to be made and presented to the judges – 4 espressos, 4 cappuccinos and 4 of the competitor’s signature drink, based on the World Barista Championships format.
With her signature drink, Sakana wanted to showcase the local blend she had selected – from Chaing Mai, Luang Prabang and Mondulkiri – and paired it with pineapple syrup and honey both sourced from Cambodia (she brought them in her luggage across from Cambodia to Singapore!).
When it was finally Sakana’s turn to take the stage she was pretty nervous and this had immediate repercussions – by the end of her preparation time she hadn’t quite got the grind right, and had to continue adjusting once her competition time started.
With an unfamiliar grinder and mounting pressure, she was still working at it 5 minutes into her 15 minute performance. Minutes went by and she was still under- and over-shooting the adjustment. It must have been devastating, but she did not give up despite the ticking clock and, no doubt, burnt fingers from all the espresso cup cleaning!
Finally at 10 minutes Sakana hit a good pour and, instantly hitting form, used her remaining time to complete her performance, serving and presenting her signature drink in the nick of time. It was an amazing recovery from what must have felt like an impossible situation.
The team was short some of the necessary equipment (each barista is responsible for bringing their own cups, saucers, jugs, everything) on arrival, so the first 12 hours were spent racing around Singapore. Neither Sakana nor Untac had ever really used public transport before and navigating the MRT proved to be a fun challenge for both of them. In the end we found everything we needed thanks to our very generous new friends at Bettr Barista.
Sakana, despite problems with the grinder and stage fright, along with tackling a presentation in English rather than her native Khmer, managed to finish within the allowable time limit. Head Judge Jake Hu loved the strong cocoa flavours in Sakana’s blend, adding that he really liked the “good, rich aroma and flavour”. He said the blend has a lot of potential, and he also loved the pineapple in Sakana’s signature drink, describing it as a “tropical sensation.”
New Zealand took out the title, while Japan came 2nd and Singapore 3rd.
At the end of the day, Sakana was obviously disappointed; she wanted to be able to put her best out there and see how it stacked up in the international arena. But it took an amazing strength of character to work through a problem like that in an utterly overwhelming setting. Everyone was incredibly proud of her, and the whole team who worked to get her there. Sak was very proud of her own accomplishments too. And with any luck, it won’t be the last time we see Kinyei at an international barista competition.
Thanks to everyone out there for all of your support, of course without which none of this would have been possible. Special thanks to the Jasper Coffee team for their generosity, support and guidance. The opportunities the team can create and access themselves now are definitely beyond anything they could have once imagined and we feel very lucky to have been able to share this journey.