Great Coffee in Common: Joachim Leong & Shean Tan

Posted by Sarah Rouse on

Great Coffee In Common
Joachim Leong & Shean Tan
Owners/Baristas of Ome Space, Penang


Describe the perfect setting to enjoy a coffee. (Joachim)

The perfect setting is not limited to one. Over time, for me, it has transitioned from café hopper to home brewer to barista. Sometimes, I forget which hat I am wearing and I find myself geeking out on coffee, raving about my favourite cafe or new cafe in town to discussing better ways to manage cafes with other owners. Heck, I even find myself helping greet customers or help clear dishes at friends' cafes. All over coffee of course! As you can see I have gone deep down the rabbit hole of coffee!

It started with discovering new and unique settings or coffees, to having that first sip of coffee of the day (always the best!) be it a home made brew or a morning calibration espresso alone behind the bar.

These days, it's not just the coffee but being with fellow coffee lovers, catching up and trying new things. It's about the people, really. 

2a. How did you get started in the coffee business? (Joachim)

It started from drinking way too many coffees and visiting way too many cafes. Eventually, I caught the attention of a consultant helping start up a cafe (now he has his own café, Sudo Brew) and he roped me in to be one of the founding baristas at VCR. I didn't throw any money in but after exploring law, sales and marketing, I thought now this, coffee is something I should take full ownership of. (Job-wise)

It was a lightbulb moment to take ownership of the work for most people after working at a few places or jobs. 

2b. How did you get started in the coffee business? (Shean)

I guess we can call it an accidental career choice. When I return from UK to KL, I happen to hang out a lot at VCR / around Pudu area. They needed help at the bar when they first started out so I jumped in to help out with cashiering. They eventually hired me as a trainee barista. As the saying goes, the rest is history.

3a. What's your relationship with coffee? (Joachim)

It's been many things to me; it's helped me fuel up, inspire me, gotten to know so many people with a similar love for it, at times I've hated it after a hard day of tasting or training with it, it's opened up the world of food, crafts beers, cocktails and other culinary delights and also gotten me interested in countries and cultures I would never haven gotten into without coffee.

3b. What's your relationship with coffee? (Shean)

I drank a lot of coffee back in my university days, perhaps more so than I am consuming on an average day. I used to be that customer who would sit at a cafe for hours working on my laptop and move on to the next one and then the next one. I’ve visited almost all of the chain coffee shops regularly in the small town of Nottingham. Eventually, after moving to London, my ‘drinking’ habits and my love of exploration within the walkable city got me slowly navigating the cafe scene there, which finally brought me from sitting on a cafe chair to standing behind the coffee machine.

  1. Who has been the biggest inspiration in your coffee life? (Joachim)

 It’s a bit clichéd but James Hoffman no nonsense yet self-aware approach to coffee. I didn't get to meet him when he visited Malaysia but from experience, it was probably for the better. Getting to know your idols up close rarely ends well. 

  1. In your opinion, what makes a good coffee? (Joachim)

I've always believed in the holy trinity of coffee. Freshly ground, not stale coffee and freshly brewed. This rule even applies to local kopitiam coffee! One of my favourite kopitiams in Ipoh serves wonderful traditional white coffee and you don't get any stale, rancid or burnt flavours. In fact you can taste the natural sweet flavours of the locally grown Liberica varietal!

Also, if you find yourself somewhere looking for good coffee, always look for a barista who really knows her/his stuff then the equipment then the coffee. A barista is usually able to turn decent coffee into something better.

  1. As a barista, what do you think about competitors in industry? (Joachim)

From my experience in sales and marketing, it's never good to knock the competition down. Working in F&B is a tough line, no room for negative energy and we are all in this together. If you know something that may make someone's life just a little easier, why not share?

Of course, it's best not to take advantage of others and it's a two way street. Always try to give back more than you take and recently I am sad that more and more people move away from the community or go overseas for greener pastures. While I respect their decisions, it just means fewer people to share that love for coffee as we go further down the rabbit hole that is coffee.

Ultimately, I believe in kaizen which means we should always strive to improve and be our better selves each day. The only benchmark is yourself, really. To be more patient, open and better at enduring challenges. Everything else is noise.

  1. How do you decide what defines a good barista? (Joachim)

Being a barista is harder than I thought it was. It's not just the physical nature of the work - I enjoy that.

I remember making the jump from home brewer to barista and the weight of expectations of guests and others start to weigh on your shoulders. The first year is difficult as we can be our own enemy, really. By 'we' I mean our minds, as we may think the worse of others around us but instead, I find time and time again that people in specialty coffee are open-minded, friendly and eager to share. Similar to how the Melbourne coffee scene matured thanks to that sharing culture that existed among the indie cafes.

I think being open minded, always learning and having a good attitude plus good hospitality skills go a long way. The rest you can pick up along the way and as they say, when the student is ready, the master appears!

  1. Wait for the right timing? Or just go for it? (Joachim)

I firmly belong in the timing camp. Some exceptions are if the reward is worth it or if it's a friend in need. I believe in probability, careful risk taking.

One pet theory I have is that the Malaysian café boom in 2013-2014 was thanks to Facebook pages. Back then, you didn't need to pay anything to reach the audience your café built up so it made marketing for indie cafes then far easier. And back then, Facebook was a more pleasant place to be. So timing (whether we realise it or not) does play a role. 

Spontaneity works well for some things but other things require some planning and timing.

  1. What would you like to see happen in the coffee industry over the next ten years? (Joachim)

Robot baristas! I jest but we see the rise of automation in specialty coffee maybe we will see throw downs among human and robots or automated brewing. It's happened before!

Over the next ten years, my crystal ball is looking rather murky. Like my french press. But I believe in cycles, up and downs so we will see people come and go but I rather take it one day at a time.

Great Coffee in Common

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