Coffee, tea or... a mystery: So when is a barista not a barista?

Kenny May
Old and new: Enjoy both traditional brewed Chinese teas as well as refreshing Nitro Teas at Tea+ – Pictures by Kenny Mah

KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 8 – Everything has its cycle. One day everyone is drinking kopi O at their neighbourhood coffee shop; the next folks are forking out good money for sugary, ice blended coffee beverages at cafés with air-conditioning and WiFi.

Then that became passé and it was all about Third Wave of Coffee suddenly: ristrettos and flat whites; single origin beans and cold brew coffees.

We used to get our bags of 3-in-1 coffee sachets at the supermarket. Now we ask baristas what brewing technique they’re using; we ask roasters which farm the beans hail from, what sort of processing, as though we’ve harvested the coffee ourselves.

I ought to know: I’ve been guilty of all of the above. (It was just a phase, I tell myself.)

Still, it goes to show how much we love our coffee; we can’t help but coo every time it is served to us in some newfangled manner. We’re only human.

So imagine my surprise when I spotted a familiar face one evening after dinner: veteran barista Pee Weng Foo, albeit behind a bar specialising in... tea. Surely my eyes are playing tricks on me?

Veteran barista Pee Weng Foo is a Tea+ 'cha-tender'

Foo, as he’s known to fellow coffee addicts in the Klang Valley, has been around since the early days of specialty coffee in Malaysia.

Starting at the now defunct RAWCoffee (spearheaded by pioneer Michael Wilson, who went on to found Artisan Roast and Seniman Kakao), the 30-year-old barista had since worked at other cafés such as RGB, Alpha Brew Coffee and Chocha Foodstore.

You could say Foo is almost a relic (though that would be unkind), that rare breed who is one of the first generation of baristas and who has stayed the course.

Until now, that is. Tea?

It took me a moment after recognising the man to realise Foo was surrounded by tea paraphernalia rather than coffee grinders and espresso machines.

Elegant teapots form part of the artisan tea bar’s décor

There are rows of elegant tea pots but also shiny hand pumps, the sort you’d tap craft beer from.

All very old-school meets new-school cool.

This is Tea+, an artisan tea bar that is part of long-time tea purveyor Purple Cane’s brand extension.

In addition to à la minute brewing of premium whole tea leaves, Tea+ offers whole leaf cold brew teas, such as lychee black tea, with no sugar or preservatives added.

Another standout at Tea+ is their series of Nitro Teas – flavoured teas infused with nitrogen to better preserve their subtle, fleeting fragrance.

Nitro Lemongrass Black Tea (left) and some snacks to nibble on between sips (right)

Foo, who joined Tea+ when they first opened in September 2018, recommends the Nitro Lemongrass Black Tea.

“The flavour of lemongrass is very light and not too overpowering. The nitrogen adds a creamy mouthfeel to it,” he tells me.

The mention of “mouthfeel” is a very barista touch. I imagine we’ll be discussing the various notes of the teas next, whether fruity or chocolatey, bright or balanced.

Coffee or tea – it’s a mystery. When is a barista not a barista? When he is a tea barista or, given the chic nature of the bar, a “cha-tender” perhaps?

As I nibble on some snacks between sips, Foo explains the difference between what I’m drinking and two of the other Nitro Teas – the Nitro Honey Pu’er and the Nitro Roselle Hawthorne.

The way his eyes light up as he gets into sharing mode comes from true passion; his easy, convivial delivery comes from years of practice.

That level of work ethic is what Foo brings to the table as he learns a new field. He says, “While it’s not really difficult adjusting from coffee to tea – they are actually quite similar – but when I started, I had to slow down to learn.”

There are differences, naturally. Foo explains, “For tea, to be honest, I have to become more precise. Develop more of my own sensory abilities. This means both tasting and smelling – I have to try hard to identify different kinds of tea and their taste profiles.”

Old and new: that is the premise of Tea+, where one can enjoy both traditional brewed Chinese teas as well as refreshing Nitro Teas.

There is a sense of order to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony

While the latter is exciting, partly due to its novelty, there is a sense of order to a traditional Chinese tea ceremony that is irreplaceable.

Foo says, “Chinese tea is really interesting. Every single step for brewing tea will make a different cup of tea. We not only focus on how well you can brew a best pot of tea, it’s all about the ritual, the process of enjoyment when brewing and sharing the tea.”

While Foo was already interested in Chinese tea prior to joining Tea+, he hadn’t had the time to learn and explore the art of tea.

Working here, he has further developed his sense of taste and his knowledge of various teas.

“My favourite tea is oolong. The joy of enjoying oolong tea, for me, comes from its interesting and natural floral and fruity tasting profile. You will definitely be surprised that a humble tea leaf can have such a very unique flavour.”

While oolong, a semi-oxidized Chinese tea, has always been popular in South-east Asia, perhaps due to the large Hokkien population whose ancestors migrated here from South China, few know that this complex tea can also vary wildly in flavour depending on the farming and processing.

I learn from Foo that some can have that distinctive roasted aroma while others are fruitier, to use a coffee roaster’s parlance, sweet like honey. I tell him I prefer pu’er for its health benefits and he notes that pu’er has low caffeine, which can be a boon given all the coffee I drink daily.

At some point, we realise that coffee is coffee and tea is tea, whether we have it at a mamak or a spruced up café. Perhaps, then, the real difference is this:

While knowledgeable, some tea professionals can be a tad pedantic and reserved; Foo explains everything in layman’s terms, something a newbie to tea like me appreciates greatly.

We are always looking for something new till one day we realise we have come full circle. Tea, whether a teh C at the kopitiam or the ever revolving (and ever returning) trend of boba milk teas, it would appear, is much the same.

Perhaps the only real difference is the people we interact with when we drink our teas and our coffees. When we share, not only beverages, but our ideas and stories, we have communion.

Once a barista, always a barista. (Even if it’s tea now.) I joke – “In Foo, we trust” – but he knows his stuff. I know the best thing for me to ask, always, is simply, “So, what would you recommend I try next...?”

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