Capetonian barista Phuti Mmotla has scooped the top prize in this year’s Starbucks best barista in EMEA competition held in Milan in Italy. It was Kenyan coffee, his skill in latte art and a signature cold brew that impressed the judges. Mmotla told BizNews about the experience of going to Starbucks Milano Roastery and how childhood memories of cookies and milk gave him the idea for his signature cold brew. From a background where he mostly drank tea, Mmotla fell in love with coffee when he started working in Cape Town for Rand Capital Coffee, the Starbucks licensee for sub-Saharan Africa, as a partner. And if you ever wondered how baristas draw those nifty little pictures in your latte, he reveals how it is done. – Linda van Tilburg
Excerpts from the interview with Phuti Mmotla
The only barista from Africa
It was a great experience. In the different categories of the competition. There was a coffee tasting and I needed to present my story through coffee tasting. The coffee that I chose was a coffee that I believe links very well with my own personal journey in coffee and it was from Kenya. Kenyan is the only coffee that is representing the growing region of Africa and I was the only Starbucks barista in the competition from Africa. So that made me choose Kenyan coffee. I also needed to come up with a signature drink that I believed customers would enjoy. The drink I came up with is easy to drink. It’s so smooth and you can drink it throughout the day. It doesn’t matter what time of the day, it’s refreshing. It’s one of those things that you can drink when you come back from work and you want something to relax with.
Recreating a childhood memory of tennis biscuits and milk
The name of it is coconut biscuit. I don’t know if you’ve had tennis biscuits, those flavours, it is exactly the flavours in the drink, that white mocha with coconut in a cold brew: the perfect drink.
I wanted to get the same flavour. How I came up with the drink is I was looking at our menu, seeing cold brew and it has only limited flavours. So, you can get the plain cold brew or a cold brew latte with dairy milk. I wanted something different to add to the menu. Looking at our drinks, I was thinking, let me try coconut. I knew coconut was going to blend well with our white mocha and obviously, coconut milk and chocolate, it’s a perfect blend and then I added cold brew. There is another reason why I chose that; it is the memory that it gave me after I took the first sip. It took me back to my childhood in December. We used to go to Limpopo, gather with family, and I had an uncle who used to work at a Bakers’ biscuit company and he brought boxes of Choice Assorted biscuits. Our favourite used to be the tennis biscuits and we enjoyed them with milk. That combination and the flavour took me down memory lane. I was like, you know what? This is the story I want to share: the family time and sharing love.
How do draw perfect art in lattes
To present the perfect latte art, the contrast needs to be perfect. You need to have only two colours in your cup. It needs to be the colour of the milk that you draw a pattern with and the crema needs to be crisp and brown and your art needs to be in the centre. So how they rate that is your art needs to be a reflection as if you cut it in half and place a mirror there: it needs to be a reflection. It’s all about the symmetry, the contrast, the positioning of the latte art.
Latte art is just practice. To get perfect latte art, you need to get the right foam, the right espresso. Immediately when you get the right foam then there’s a flow that you need to use when you pour and you first need to start with pouring your heart. If you start with the heart, then you take it from there, because each art you learn, starts from a heart, how you shape a heart. Then it is also important how the customer is going to hold the cup. When I make a pattern on your latte art, it needs to face you because you cannot hold a cup and the art faces the other way around. So, it needs to face you that when you sip it, you see the art.
From employee to partner that is going to Rwanda
So, Starbucks partner; we replaced the term employee with a partner because we believe when you say someone is a partner, a partner is someone who works very well with anyone they’ve partnered with. The important thing is to support and understand the person that you work with. It’s the same that applies in a relationship when you really need to support your partner, you need to understand them, you need to care for them. So that’s what we are all about. The prize was a trip to visit the coffee farm called Single Origin. It’s an origin experience. I’ll be going to Rwanda to experience the lifespan of a coffee tree up until the coffee beans form. I’m going next year, I think, around March and then I get a trophy as well that I get to hold for at least a year up until the next winner and then this beautiful purple apron as well.
Coffee culture is growing in South Africa
I believe in South Africa in general, the coffee culture is growing and it is growing fast. Previously most of us were used to tea, but now if you go to a restaurant, you get a mix of customers. Even now in Cape Town, I was surprised to hear there’s a coffee shop in Khayelitsha. With a coffee shop in Khayelitsha, it means everyone is now exposed to coffee. So, we are growing. We are growing fast in the coffee industry. The coffee culture is here.