A Malaysian woman may have won this year’s Cambodia Barista Competition, but the huge spike in the number of entrants and the quality of their pours shows how far the capital’s coffee culture has come in just a few years.
The contest held over the weekend in Phnom Penh also highlighted the growing value of having a good barista in the capital’s myriad of coffee houses, where a perfect shot of espresso must be sweet and smooth with a golden top of thick crema, a skill that takes time to develop.
“A lot of people think the barista’s job is just a job, but the market for the coffee business is growing. And as the business is growing, there’s always a shortage of skilled staff,” said Khim Chhean, the business manager of coffee equipment supplier and barista training school Kofi, who organized the competition.
In 2010, the first year of the contest, only a handful of places in Phnom Penh served really good espresso, perhaps in five-star hotels and one or two cafes, said Joshua Jones, one of the competition’s seven judges.
A good cup was hard to find, he said, even in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang area, popular among foreigners—some with high expectations for their espressos, lattes and cappuccinos.
“If you look at BKK it used to have one, and it was Gloria Jean’s, and then after you got a few more, and a few more, to dozens in the area alone,” said Mr. Jones, a managing partner of Three Corner Coffee Roaster.
As the number of coffee houses grew, so did the need for baristas who could pull a good cup of coffee—or a qaud-shot sugar-free cappuccino with just the right amount of velvety foam.
In the first year of the competition, “almost all of the coffee that was made was not according to standard: just black coffee, not true espresso,” Mr. Jones said. “We weren’t getting flavor notes out of it except just burnt and over-extracted.”
“But good baristas and the good coffees they make have continued to increase,” he said.
In this year’s contest at Koh Pich Exhibition Center, the judges evaluated several criteria, from the technical to the sensory and the overall consistency of the coffee. “To win a barista competition, one must consistently make good coffee according to World Barista Championship standards,” Mr. Jones said.
Kofi’s Ms. Chhean, who has been involved in the competition since the start, said the number of contestants had continued to grow, from a dozen in the beginning to 47 this year. It gives her optimism for employment prospects for baristas in Cambodia.
The number of coffee houses is still growing. Brown Coffee, the homegrown chain, continues to add stores around the capital and recently opened its first outlet in Siem Reap. Starbucks, the U.S. behemoth, has opened three stores in Phnom Penh in the past year, including a flagship store this month in the BKK 1 neighborhood.
New coffee places keep “popping up,” noted Mr. Jones. “If you have better skill, it is more attractive because you can train other people.”
The winner of this year’s competition, Chew Limun, said the fast growth and opportunity she saw in Cambodia’s coffee market persuaded her to move to Siem Reap from Malaysia in order to work for a new cafe, The Missing Socks Laundry Cafe.
“I was working as a barista in Malaysia for around half a year when I decided to come to work in Cambodia early this year,” she said. “I wanted to join the competition to get an experience, as well as to promote our cafe, but I didn’t expect that I could win.”
Twelve contestants made it through to the final round of the competition, held from Thursday through Saturday. The other top competitors were Rous Thoeun of Siem Reap, who came in second, and Chen Phearum of Phnom Penh, who was placed third.