Online Interview

Interview with the King of Coffee, Keith LohFeatures, Restaurants   -TIME OUT SINGAPORE  published on Apr 07 2010 – 11:47

After his win at the Singapore National Barista Championships, Oriole Café & Bar owner and barista Keith Loh sits down with Celine Asril to grind out some coffee myths.
Interview with the King of Coffee, Keith Loh
published on Apr 07 2010 – 11:47
You beat 23 contestants including your co-worker, John Ting (the 2008 and 2009 winner), to first place at the Singapore National Barista Championship this year. What was your strategy?
After last year, I realised I needed to concentrate on the coffee to move forward. Oriole sources for beans directly. We [now] also have an in-house artisan coffee roaster [the Dietrich IR7] to help us control the quality of our coffee better. We trained really hard together and it was a very close call. I’m proud three of our baristas came in within the top five.

What was the concoction that helped you clinch the win?
I created ‘Citrus Sin’ for the competition. It is a reduction of orange juice, brown sugar, clover-leaf honey, vanilla, thyme, mint, star anise and cinnamon with chocolate, milk and a shot of espresso coffee. It was inspired by Oriole’s citrus cheesecake. Citrus Sin will be on our menu soon.

What temperature should coffee be drunk at?
Different grinds and brewing techniques require different temperatures. In general, 93-94°C.

Is it the same temperature for coffees with milk?
No, the milk should be between 60-65°C. Anything more than that and it will taste flat and burnt.

Is skimmed milk better than full milk for coffee?
No – fats are needed for the oil to bind with [the tongue’s] receptors to create a clean taste and round finish. Skimmed milk actually has less fat and more sugar than full milk.

Is fair trade better than non-fair trade coffee?
Concepts like fair trade focus on the welfare of coffee growers; it means buyers will commit to pay above slave wage, but it does not necessarily mean better coffee.

Do lattes or cappuccinos sell more?
Funnily enough, a lot of people in Singapore do not know what a cappuccino is. That, and how ‘latte’ rolls off the tongue easier, are reasons why lattes sell more. Our most popular drink is the ‘Piccolo Latte’.

If a customer walked out with residual coffee foam on the bridge of his nose, would you tell them? [Laughs] No.

Oriole Café & Bar is offering a free one-hour coffee appreciation workshop to 10 lucky TOS readers. Just answer this simple question. Contest ends once we receive first 10 correct answers.

Keith Loh: Coffee break with the best barista in Singapore

CNNGo takes five with the winner of the Singapore National Barista Championship to find out the secret to his brewing, and business, success
Keith Loh (left) and John Ting of Oriole Café & Bar
Keith Loh (left) and John Ting of Oriole Café & Bar with their trophies from the SNBC.

Keith Loh, the publisher turned food entrepreneur, has been credited for creating the modish Whitebait & Kale at Camden (it closed in 2009) and, subsequently, Aerin at Raffles City as well as Bedrock Bar & Grill and Oriole Café & Bar at Pan Pacific Serviced Suites. At 36 years old, Keith recently topped the Singapore National Barista Championship and is on his way to participating in the World Barista Championship in London this April.

Before Keith packs off again, CNNGo gets the hunky barista to spill his secrets on making a perfect cuppa. 

 You were a publisher before, why did you get your hands dirty in the highly competitive restaurant scene?  

Keith Loh: Yes I did start out in publishing years back, but as the saying goes, ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire!’ Seriously, I’ve always wanted to learn how to wash dishes, to taste twenty dishes all at once, to put out kitchen fires, unclog grease traps, handle demanding customers, for example. Looking back eight years on, I just didn’t have the time to ask ‘why’ but now that you made me think, it might be just the simple pleasure of making an honest living of providing a decent meal and drinks that makes me smile deep inside. In our group of restaurants, we serve an average of 1,000 customers a day. Being relevant to my customers and serving them what they want — consistently and at the right value — is what gives me the drive to keep going.

CNNGo: We heard that you are quite the foodie. What are your top three food haunts in Singapore and in Asia?

Loh: (Smiles) The Number One spot goes to my mom’s kitchen. Every Wednesday night and Sunday lunch, my mom cooks up a storm and I try to inhale everything in sight. Number two is Tai Wah Bak Chor Mee at Crawford Lane. My dad ate at the original stall and now it’s the son that’s running it. Number three is the freshly roasted specialty coffee served at Oriole Cafe & Bar. Coffee really is food to me, without which I would not be able to last 48 hours.

CNNGo: We (and all the doctors at Camden Medical Center) loved Whitebait & Kale (WBK). What inspired you to start this restaurant in Singapore? And why did you close it in 2009?

Loh: In 2003, I realized that a concept like WBK would fit neatly between the gap of casual and fine dining with fresh produce and seafood wrapped around modern Australian cuisine. Sadly we did not renew our lease and are currently looking for a new location (fingers crossed!). But some WBK favorites have made appearances at Oriole Cafe & Bar, and many of our WBK waiters are now plying their trade at Bedrock Bar & Grill.


Oriole Café & Bar
Oriole Café & Bar.

CNNGo: What are some of the most bizarre requests you’ve had from Whitebait & Kale customers then? 

Loh: Steamed rice and sambal belachan (a hot chili condiment with shrimp paste) have been requested by different people on more than one occasion — maybe they are taking turns to trip up my waiters.

CNNGo: At the moment, we’ve got Morton’s of Chicago, Lawry’s and a few others jostling in the steak market. Why did you choose to join this bandwagon when you opened Bedrock? Has it been a tough chew?

Loh: A year after the opening of Whitebait & Kale I’d wanted to open a grill restaurant, one based on classic grilled meats and a complete opposite to the modern Australian cuisine served at Whitebait & Kale, yet business wise it made complimentary sense. I saw a gap in the market for a small, intimate, sexy and casual bar & grill. I looked at numerous locations and I almost committed to a few earlier locations but when I found this place at Pan Pacific Serviced Suites, everything fell into place and looking back I’m pretty sure I’ve made the right decision. The chew in fact has not been tough as our customers are really enjoying what we have to offer.

CNNGo: There’s the ubiquitous Starbucks and TCC chains brewing out there too — what sets Oriole apart from them?

Loh: We train highly experienced baristas to make a consistent and quality cuppa, from our espresso-based drinks to our newest single-origin single-cup filter coffee offerings. We also source the best beans from all over the world, including special auction lot reserve coffees. By boutique roasting specialty coffees in-house (come see “Ella,” our bright orange shop roaster at Oriole), we focus on individualizing each order to maximize the freshest taste experience in each cup. We cannot hope to compete with the size and variety that other coffee chains can offer, so we are trying to offer a completely different taste experience to our customers.

CNNGo: Finally, what is your recommendation to making the perfect cup of joe for CNNGo’s readers?

Loh: Here’s my process.
Step 1: Use the freshest possible coffee you can find, preferably one with a date of roast printed, make sure it’s not the expiry date (brew coffee within one month of roast date).
Step 2: Don’t over brew your coffee, overextraction will always result in bitter and bad tasting coffee, no matter how good it is.
Step 3: Always taste the coffee first before you add milk and sugar, good coffee should taste good even without milk and sugar (it’s also much healthier).
Step 4: Take the time to slow down and enjoy the delicate and complex aromas of well brewed coffee, rather than knocking one back for the caffeine fix!

Citrus Sin by Keith Loh
Citrus Sin, Keith’s winning entry at the Pura Latte Art competition.


Read more: Keith Loh: Coffee break with the very best barista in Singapore |

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