Muthusamy was instantly drawn into entering the Barista Championship. Image Credit: Grace Paras

Wake up and smell the coffee. For Raja Muthusamy this could well be the mission statement of his life. From starting off washing dishes in a cafe to becoming the winner of the 2010 UAE Barista Championship, he has seen himself grow over the past seven years in Dubai. Muthusamy came to Dubai at the age of 19.

He was already a married man by then, although it was not a milestone he chose himself.

“I wanted to come to Dubai, earn some money first before I agreed to marriage but my wife’s parents thought otherwise. They believed that I would be too busy earning money to give marriage a thought.”

And so it was that he got married at 19 and ten months later landed in Dubai thanks to a visit visa organised by his uncle who has been here for many years.

In Dubai, Muthusamy initially worked at Cafe Breeze in 2003 as a washer up and worked his way up to become a head waiter. After the cafe’s operations were discontinued in 2006, the café’s managing director, Kim Thompson, set up a coffee espresso bar, the Raw Coffee Company, where Muthusamy joined as a barista and coffee roaster in 2007.

“I was amazed by all the designs that I saw people make on coffee,” he says.

It was not long before he took to his new role of a barista with an ease that surprised him. But there were some obstacles initially, such as language.

It was difficult for him to converse with his customers in English, armed as he was with only Tamil, his mother tongue. But he soon found himself at ease with them as they were all very friendly.

As for Thompson, “I like working with Kim. Now we are like family,” says Muthusamy, who as a result of his initial struggle with communication decided to earn himself a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in English through a correspondence course.

He is about to complete his third year and plans to do his Masters in English as well.

‘Even eagles need a push’

Muthusamy was instantly drawn into entering the Barista championship. However his participation in it last year earned him, to his utter disappointment, only third place. It was reason enough for him to make a promise to himself – he would train hard and ensure he came first the next time.

The UAE Barista Championship, organised by the World Barista Championship based in the US, is basically a competition that promotes coffee but with an accent on its speedy and stylish preparation.

The sleight of hand that baristas perform as they froth up your cappuccino is as much a practised art as it is a wilful passion. Although there is a pure science to the making of a cup of coffee there is also an artistic flavour to each cup that is mostly driven by the inclinations of a barista.

An excellent and efficient barista is one who is prepared to practise the technique of making coffee to the point where every cup he makes is of the same excellent consistency, taste and flavour and in the time that is allocated for it. Mainly, a good barista should have a passion for coffee and for how it works.

This passion naturally then can be ‘tasted’ in the coffee. The championship asks the participants to prepare 12 good-tasting coffees using the correct procedure in 15 minutes. The main rule being the 12 drinks have to be made within 15 minutes.

Time is allotted up to 16 minutes, but points are lost per extra second taken. If the contestant takes more than 16 minutes, he or she is disqualified. The 12 drinks are broken up into: four cappuccinos, four espressos and the four signature drinks of a barista.

Sticking to the details

Coffee competitions are an extremely interesting phenomenon. Nobody usually observes the minute technical details in its preparation. Although the coffee is mainly judged by its taste, the procedure that goes into making it can be a spectacle in itself.

The creamy white milk flowing into the cup, the fresh ground coffee settling in the glass, the bubbling water and coffee that simmers down during siphoning... all this builds up an astounding picture of science and art at work when crafting a cup of coffee.

‘Refreshing’ would be an appropriate description of the taste of a good cup of coffee. Texture, appearance and essentially flavour have to be defined to impress the judges in this competition, and that is what in totality makes the perfect cup of coffee.

Even for onlookers, it can be quite an enthralling experience – watching baristas pouring the milk accurately into the coffee in order to obtain that perfect design to ‘siphoning’ the coffee for the signature drink. Everything is subject to the sweet tyranny of precision!

“It wasn’t too difficult for me to follow the rules, because I apply most of those rules when I prepare coffee every day,” says Muthusamy of the exacting pressure of the championship. “For some baristas it was very hard as their procedures clashed with some of the rules.”

For the signature drink of a barista, the rules state that the dominant flavour present should be espresso, not coffee. The milk for the cappuccino should not be heated too much, so that the milk and espresso are tasted equally.

There are a lot of technicalities involved when making coffee. Mainly it has to be consistent. Small changes made in the technicality can cause a drastic change in the way the coffee tastes. For example, if the milk is heated five degrees more it loses its sweetness, which affects the taste of the coffee.

If fresh ground coffee is not used, the beverage doesn’t taste fresh. There are 870 points in total and each technicality such as wiping the cup, tempering the coffee, time taken for each drink, temperature of the milk, etc., are counted as points.

What was his signature drink? “A combination of almond milk, cocoa powder, palm sugar syrup and siphon coffee,” he reveals. “I use fresh ground coffee, so it gives the drink a different taste.” He calls his signature drink ‘The Rawuccino’.

Muthusamy makes the coffee for ‘The Rawuccino’ by using a siphon coffee maker. The principle of a siphon coffee maker is based on the expansion of water. Water is left to boil in the bottom chamber of the brewer until expansion takes place. Due to the expansion, it impels the contents through a narrow tube into the upper chamber containing the ground coffee.

Once the lower chamber is approximately drained and sufficient time has elapsed, the heat is removed resulting in a vacuum. This vacuum pulls the coffee through a filter back into the lower chamber from which the siphoned coffee can be poured.

Says Matt Toogood, director of sales at Raw Coffee Company of Muthusamy’s accomplishment, “Raja was competing against big companies and it took both time and money [for the coffee used during practice] for him to earn the title, but I think in the end it comes down to the individual’s passion. He is a fantastic employee!

“He has developed a unique taste of coffee for himself and he concentrated on making it taste the way he likes it. Because of this unique individual taste during the preparation, Raja was capable of explaining why the coffee was excellent for him. And that’s why he deserved to win!” says Toogood. Muthusamy prefers Mexican coffee as it has a nutty flavour to it. His coffee has to have a balance of sweetness, body and acidity, although he does like a high level of acidity.

As part of his job today, Muthusamy also helps to train new baristas. He isn’t particularly impressed when a trainee barista is able to do latte art. That simply isn’t enough. Instead he looks for an ideal espresso, made to perfection. Basically, he looks for another ‘Raja’ in the barista.

Toogood, Thompson and Muthusamy went to Yemen in December to find some good-quality Yemeni coffee beans which Muthusamy will use in his coffee blends for the World Championships to be held in Colombia in June this year. Is he ready? Says Muthusamy, who is now roastery supervisor and barista trainer, Raw Coffee Company, “I have already started training.”

Technicalities and rules to be followed in the competition:

1) A traditional cappuccino is a 150ml to 180ml beverage.
2) It should be served in a 150ml to 180 ml cup with a handle.
2) Additional toppings such as spices or powdered flavourings are prohibited.

1) Extraction time of an espresso must be between 20 to 30 seconds.
2) It must be served in a 2 to 3 ounce / 60 to 90 ml cup with a handle.
3) It should be served to the judges instantly with a spoon, napkin, sugar
and water.
4) Each espresso should be produced with an appropriate and consistent amount of ground coffee.

Signature beverage
1) The distinct taste of espresso must be present. Alcohol is not permitted.
2) Judges must be able to drink the signature drink without the use of a spoon.
3) No ingredients other than ground coffee may be placed in the portafilter.
Other technicalities
1) The portafilter, filter basket, temperature, pressure, steam wand nozzle should not be changed by the contestant.
2) The work station must be tidy before and after the competition.
“In the end it comes down to the individual’s passion. Muthu is a fantastic employee”