You might be weighing up the options of your next career step, but what if there’s a whole new future for you in an industry you’ve never even tried? This is how life played out for Korean-Australian Caleb Cha, who, before becoming a world champion latte artist, had never even tasted coffee.
Caleb, who will take part in a barista showdown at this year’s Melbourne International Coffee Expo, beginning today, first arrived in Melbourne in 2008, after a stretch as a platoon leader in the Korean Marines.
“It’s important to have endurance and leadership in whatever situation you face,” he says. “The biggest life lesson I learnt is being able to control yourself emotionally as well as physically, and successfully leading your team.”
With a working-holiday visa and limited English, Caleb threw himself into Melbourne life as well as the world of coffee. Seven years later, Caleb took out the top spot in the World Latte Art Championships. How does one even train for such an event? Well, he starts by reading through the rules “from A to Z,” then moves onto painstakingly designing and fixing potential patterns, plus training with other latte artists to keep his skills up. He names competing in the championships (he took out the top spot in 2015) as “one of the best experiences” of his life.
“I strongly recommend anyone to compete if you love a challenge,” he advises. “No-one is ever actually ready for the competition – just do it. [It] actually motivates you to be a better person than before… If you don’t challenge yourself, you don’t improve.”
With such a boom in coffee, the beverage has taken on a life of its own, sometimes subject to personal preferences and alternative milks.
“It’s obviously the customer’s personal preference as to which coffee they order, and why they order it,” Caleb says diplomatically. “The worst coffee order is probably an ‘extra, extra, extra hot’ coffee. Milk’s perfect temperature in a coffee is 60-65 degrees, and this is the perfect temperature for consumption. When you steam milk at any higher temperature, it can curdle and make the coffee taste real bad.”
As for those who Instagram their foam, Caleb doesn’t mind (just make sure you do it quickly).
“I practice and work really hard to hone my craft and it’s nice when people Instagram my work to share with their friends,” he says. “This also brings more people into the cafes I work at, as they see the latte art, come in to see it done in person, and so there’s more foot traffic. That being said, I want you to take your photo and then drink – I make your coffee at the perfect temperature for consumption and want you to drink it as soon as possible once I give it to you.”
And as for those “‘half-decaf and a half-house blend, dash of hot milk with two sugars, well stirred’ kind of thing’” Caleb says, “I just don’t see the point in ordering this coffee.”
Especially since Caleb spent quite a bit of time honing in on the fundamentals.
“[I] follow the basic rules in making coffees, such as extraction times and yields, brewing ratio, milk texturing and temperature,” he says, “but also, I care about the origin of everything I’m using – where did my beans and my milk come from? I love Single Origin beans from Ethiopia and Costa Rica, especially. Here in Victoria, I only use PURA milk because not only is the quality great, but they support over 45 local Victorian Farmers, which is important to me.”