He's a rock star of a barista
WHEN it comes to coffee, you could say that Mr Suhaimie Sukiman is one of the best in the business.
Today, the 32-year-old is a certified sensory judge at the World Barista Championships, a renowned international coffee competition.
There are only 43 such judges in the world. He is also a certified latte art judge and will be one of the judges at the Singapore National Barista Championship next month.
The popularity of latte art - where baristas create designs on a cup of coffee - has glamorised the job, but Mr Suhaimie says that dedication to mastering the fundamental principles is key.
He picked up the trade when he was 16, at a global chain with many outlets in Singapore.
"I was skateboarding in the CBD and I saw a sign that they were hiring. I...tried out for the job and fell in love with it in my first year," he says.
To be certified as a sensory judge at the world championships, he had to pass two exams and do well in two practical assessments.
"One of them involved blind-tasting 26 cups of coffee, some of which had multiple flavours. I had to identify at least 22 correctly," he says.
To raise his chances, he quit smoking and cut down on spicy food so that his palate would be as clean and sensitive as possible.
The sacrifices paid off when he was one of the eight in his cohort to be certified, out of 26 people last year.
While coffee remains the source of his passion, being a barista is about being in the "people business", he adds.
Some customers get so attached to their favourite barista that they turn into divas when they are served by someone they are not familiar with, he says.
"I had a regular customer who rejected three cups of coffee made by a colleague of mine.
"I was in the back room and got wind of the commotion. I told him I would make him a cup, but what I actually did was take the third cup and fiddle with it behind the counter, before bringing it back to the guy.
"He told me it tasted like a million bucks."
Being able to hold a conversation with just about anyone is also an important trait of a good barista, he says.
"Multitasking is important. You have to be able to make coffee and talk to people at the same time. All the better if you can tell the customer about the coffee beans' origins, down to the number of daughters the farmer has," he adds.
He has had his share of difficult customers.
A particularly memorable incident involved a female customer who asked for the freshest bagels in the store.
"I brought out all the bagels we had and allowed her to prod and pinch them while they were wrapped with cling-wrap, because she was so adamant and raised her voice.
"Still, she was not satisfied with the range. She shouted that they were very hard and threw the bag of them in my face."
Under pressure to set a good example to the other staff , Mr Suhaimie suppressed his anger and embarrassment, and said: "You're welcome."
But what happened next warmed his heart.
"Another customer who witnessed what had happened came forward to comfort me and actually bought a bagel from me," he says.
Mr Suhaimie has come a long way. He currently earns about five to six times the $1,200 paid to a newbie barista.
He is such a rock star on the Singapore coffee scene that he can't enjoy a cup in a cafe without being recognised by fellow baristas.
"Some of them feel stressed out and don't want to make me a cup. They get a colleague to do it instead. So I really treasure it when I can walk into a cafe and be 'unknown'," he says.
But if you think his ambition is to be a cafe owner, you'd be wrong.
"My dream is to open a shop selling my mother's laksa. It's seriously to die for," he says.