We wrap up our conversation with Peace by talking about Thai coffee and the SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel.
BY KATRINA YENTCH
BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Cover photo provided by Peace Sakulclanuwat
On Friday, we began learning about coffee competitor Peace Sakulclanuwat’s (she/her) journey through coffee and how competition has changed her service experience. Today, we’ll learn about what it was like to present Thai coffee (a natural process Catuai varietal from Chiang Mai) on the national stage, and how the subjectivity of the SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel impacted her score with the judges at the 2020 U.S. Brewers Cup.
Note: This interview has been condensed for brevity.
Katrina Yentch: We both have talked about Thai-origin coffee. I’m curious what kind of potential you see for it to have a global presence?
Peace Sakulclanuwat: The first thing that makes Thai coffee special is Thailand is one of the few coffee-growing regions in Asia besides Vietnam and China and then Indonesia, but I feel like since Thailand, with the coffee farms they have going on there, it’s like micro-lots. The amount of the production is not enough for the farmer or producers to export Thai coffee outside the country.
I think Thai coffee will break through in the international market with the help of connection, and that coffee shops in the U.S. are willing to invest in Thai coffee … I think there will be a new change soon as long as people are willing to invest and promote. Right now if you go to Thailand, every coffee shop there only serves Thai coffee. They barely have international coffee because the price point is very expensive, but to serve and make Thai coffee taste as good as Ethiopian, then what’s the point? Why would they make such expensive green beans when you have your own resource in the country?
So what did it feel like to be Thai-American on the U.S. national stage? To my knowledge we haven’t had too many of us Thai coffee folks make it as far in American coffee competitions!
I feel very honored and proud of myself that I made it that far for my first time. … It was an honor for the Thai farmers back home, because at the end of my presentation on my national speech I said, “I’m very proud that I was able to represent this coffee on behalf of Thai farmers back home.”
Like I said before, not a lot of people who happen to be born in coffee-growing regions (are able) to use that coffee, to represent yourself and your country on another land too, in the U.S. People have been competing for so many years, and for me to compete for the first time, and I made it to the national level (17th place) for the first time, using Thai coffee … there’s nothing else I could ask for. When I went to nationals I wasn’t looking to win. The only thing I had in my head when I went to compete with Thai coffee is that I wanna give all my best and best represent the Thai coffee and show it to American judges. I’m like, “Hey, there’s also good coffee that isn’t from 90+ estate or Gesha varietals that you’ve been tasting this whole time.” I’m just like, “Here, it’s the best thing I can offer to you, and hopefully it will change something in coffee competition, to create more diversity, and then give a platform for multiracial barista competitors, having a space to take in the competition world.” In the past it has always been white straight male or female. When’s the last time you see so many people of color compete in the coffee industry?
At the end of my competition, one of the things that brought me down and made me feel upset was because I think with the flavor wheel that we have, the SCA (Coffee Taster’s) Flavor Wheel, all the judges use it to locate and taste the coffees. I think most of the fruits and tasting notes, it’s not helping with my coffee. My tasting notes for my Thai coffee were a lot of tropical fruits. Most of the judges, they’re not familiar with tropical fruits. For example, if you throw out dragonfruits, I bet one of them have had it before. Or even tamarind, or sun dried banana, that’s all the tasting notes that I cannot use because my judging panel wasn’t familiar with this.
I see the frustration that can come from the lack of the limited notes from the flavor wheel, not your own.
I think that the more coffees that people start using from Asia, or just anything besides Africa or Latin America, I just want the judges to be open-minded when it comes to sensory. If you were a sensory judge I think you should be able to put yourself out there and try all kinds of flavors, all kinds of fruits. Not just limit yourself to what you know to taste, all kinds of berries. For me, as an Asian competitor, all the fruits I’m familiar with growing up, it’s not blueberries, it’s not raspberries. I don’t even know what those different things taste like. That’s one thing that upset me a lot, because one of the things I said was Thai iced tea—and then four judges, three out of four never had Thai iced tea. They were like, we don’t know what it tastes like. I said, “But you all live in (Southern) California right?” There’s a Thai town in L.A. too! There’s no buts. If you’re going to call yourself a sensory judge you should try food from every country!
Right? We need a flavor wheel revision! I’m waiting for the next one to look super different hopefully. Moving forward, what are some of your responsibilities at Coffee Project NY?
I am a manager at the East Village location. I met Sum (Ngai, Coffee Project NY owner) during one of the coffee events outside of work. When I was working at Starbucks, I knew my coffee knowledge was starting to go downhill and I didn’t learn anything new and I was looking to learn from someone who cared a lot about coffee. When I follow Sum, I feel like she’s very passionate about it, and that she and Kaleena (Teoh) didn’t come from coffee backgrounds but they pushed themselves and learned on their own. Now they have four locations and roast their own coffee and have the SCA training lab in New York. For me to learn from someone who had a similar background, starting with zero experience, I was hoping one day I could join the team.
My idea of moving to another place is that I always wanna go for a higher position or do something better than my own job. She offered me to be a manager and I was learning from her, and I learned so much from Coffee Project. It’s not just about learning to manage, you’re learning how to present yourself in the coffee community, not in a way of leading, but work that is giving back to the community. You don’t do anything for your own benefits. She’s done a lot of charity, community work that would provide benefits to give back to the coffee community. And also Sum is the kind of person who isn’t stingy about her knowledge. If you were to ask anything, she’s willing to teach you, she’s willing to share, to give you all kinds of resources she had in the end. That’s what made me really enjoy working for CPNY. To them they are my second family.
There’s also a thin line between Sum and Kaleena that we respect them. At the end of the day they’re still our bosses, but they’re so down to earth that they always hang out with us, take care of us, they never left us behind.
What kind of things do you enjoy outside of coffee?
What do you mean? I don’t have any hobbies! Well growing up I like doing Lego puzzles, and even during the pandemic. I like to go to café hopping, carry my coffee diary with me and a Polaroid camera. Before I actually joined CP I knew one day I wanted to open my own coffee shop. That’s how it started, just because I wanted to go in and observe everything. The business, menu, interior design, work flow, machines. I would go there and photograph and sit there and enjoy an espresso or cortado. I would start writing down my whole experience, what I like about this place, what I see from the menu, what I like about their service, what is something I can take for my future if I ever open one?
Right now, I don’t know what I want to do anymore. Working for Coffee Project is the only one job I don’t feel like quitting or eager to be anywhere to go higher. And individually, the way we grow, is as a team. So I guess my hobbies are Lego, café hopping, and spending time with my two dogs. They’re like my two children.