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Papa Palheta’s Ryan Tan, coffee extraordinaire

Meld Magazine

Thu Mar 22 2012

Ryan Tan

FIND out how Ryan Tan went from just another commerce student at Melbourne University to coffee extraordinaire, winning Singapore’s National Barista Championship for a second year running. Sarah Soh reports.

Singaporean Ryan Tan has gone from economics and finance student to full-fledged coffee geek. Photo: Andrew Hoi

Papa Palheta’s Ryan Tan is on a high. Usually it’s induced by the aromas wafting from his coffee machine, but this time it’s because he’s just been crowned the Singapore National Barista Champion, again.

Despite the dizzy highs of being a two-time National Barista Champion, for the most part, Singaporean Ryan Tan has his feet grounded in reality.

“It was stressful, there was lots of work behind it, but I learnt a lot,” the humble barista says.

In a few short years, Ryan has gone from being a student pursuing a degree in economics and finance at the University of Melbourne to a full-fledged coffee geek. It’s an obsession borne from his time in Melbourne, but it’s also a family affair. Both his parents and his siblings are involved in the coffee business.

“My parents wanted to open a roastery and cafe, Papa Palheta’s in Singapore, so they forced me to take a barista course in Melbourne. It was only then that I started to drink coffee.”

Later while working at Papa Palheta’s, Ryan was offered an opportunity to hone his skills at Guava Bean in Southbank after the manager for the cafe popped in for a cuppa while holidaying in Singapore and loved Ryan’s style.

“He offered me a job in Melbourne when he found out I was studying there. I learnt most of what I know from him,” Ryan says.

Ryan then moved on to other cafes like St. Ali’s in South Melbourne and Axil Coffee Roasters in Hawthorn, which stood him in good stead as he prepared for Singapore’s National Barista Competition in 2011. Two-time Australian barista champion and World Barista Championship runner-up David Makin trained him for the competition.

“I learnt so many things. The preparation of the competition, devising my drink, preparing my speech, roasting different profiles of the same bean and cupping them to find the best taste,” he says.

In his years as a barista, Ryan has developed an almost perfect understanding of the many styles of coffee people enjoy.

“Singaporeans like coffee that’s very sweet, so most of them take it with sugar or choose coffee that’s very full-bodied with very low acidity,” he says.

“Australians are generally more accepting of high-acidity coffees, but I wouldn’t want to generalise. Everywhere I’ve worked, different people have liked different types of coffees.”

He believes Melbourne’s coffee scene is reaching saturation point, but is very optimistic about the future of the fledgling industry in Singapore.

“Singapore is still way behind in terms of the quality of coffee, the number of cups a day they sell and the number of cups people consume. The coffee culture isn’t developed enough yet,” he says.

“But it has been expanding and growing at an exponential rate. Two years ago there were hardly any specialty coffee places, and over the past year I think we’ve seen 20 or so pop up.”

So what’s next for the barista champ?

“Right now, I’m just planning the logistics for the World Barista Championships (in June). I’m about to open a new cafe, but I don’t have a name yet. And it’s meant to be ready in the next three weeks!

“Then I’ll be back in Melbourne in August to finish my last semester,” he says.

It’s a busy life for this coffee expert, and he’s certainly not resting on his laurels anytime soon.

“I believe there’s still much more to learn for everyone. I think from experience, you learn that there’s just more to learn.”