Philippines AeroPress Champion Kaye Ong: On Being a Winner and on Being a WomanJune 1, 2015
When I look at Kaye Ong, I see a woman who has it together—she is part-owner of Suelas and Habitual Coffee. She is well-traveled and is tying the knot with the love of her life next January. Seriously! Look at Kaye Ong take over the world! She has two AeroPress trophies under her belt too—both for the local and world titles (and maybe another one for this year’s World Barista Championship). But I think one of the most powerful assets Kaye has is that she is a woman, which she is, first and foremost, before anything else.
“It feels weird!” she laughs when I ask what it feels like to be one of the only women in our thriving third wave coffee industry. “I’ve noticed that guys run most coffee shops, and usually, the baristas are always guys. Although we have two boys on the team, TJ Rocamora (Kaye’s fiancé) and Raf Gracia, I do feel the pressure because I didn’t really expect that I’d be representing Habitual Coffee locally and internationally! Maybe social media’s just been blasting mostly guys in the specialty coffee industry, but there are actually a lot of girls involved in it. Perhaps they [girls] don’t get enough media mileage. Case in point, in our shop most of the baristas are girls, so I don’t think there’s anything to really make them feel intimidated from joining the industry. It’s just that maybe they don’t get that much attention at this point, I think.”
One of the things that got Kaye into specialty coffee was her passion for traveling. “TJ and I like trying out restaurants and coffee shops that are local within each country we visit. We found out later that the coffee shops we were visiting (and loved) fell under the ‘third wave’ category, and I guess, that’s how we found out about the whole specialty coffee movement. I decided to get serious with it when I got to try Blue Bottle because a friend of mine said, ‘Oh, you should try Blue Bottle! Their coffee tastes like dark chocolate-covered blueberries’, and I didn’t want to believe him at first because it sounded so weird, like, how can your coffee taste like blueberries?! But I was blown away when I tried Blue Bottle because it did taste like blueberries and dark chocolate. And since then, I’ve been on a quest for that cup of coffee that would be as mind-blowing as my Blue Bottle experience.
“During a trip to Seattle, we went to this coffee shop that was recommended by Sprudge.com—Slate Coffee. Incidentally, Carmel of Kalsada Coffee was also in Seattle that time, and she knew one of the owners, so she also recommended that we go there. Looking back, my experience at Slate Coffee might have been the best I’ve had so far because their espresso tasted really different—it was a different level of fruity. You can also opt to have the coffee served in a deconstructed manner. So, it was an espresso shot first, so at least we get to try and taste the flavor on its own, and then, there was a separate serving of milk, which was from some single-origin farm that tasted super nutty. The last part of the drink was the latte itself, so it give you an idea of how that drink will taste like given its separate elements.”
Then, we started to talk about specialty coffee scene here in the Philippines. “Based on my experience as we [Habitual Coffee] entered and how we were accepted, I feel like the specialty coffee industry here is really friendly, approachable, and I feel like it opens a lot of doors for collaboration. It’s easy to see specialty coffee as a status symbol [as with food and other beverages, especially in Metro Manila], but I guess trying out something new in general, whether it be food, beverages, a new clothing brand—it would always be a status symbol. I think with coffee, though, it goes deeper and beyond that because it really encourages conversation with different people.
“Here in the shop, we’ve gotten to know so many of our customers and I feel like we’ve become friends with them through coffee. The same goes with the other industry players. May background is in retail, and in retail, when you come in and there are other players in the same industry, the vibe is more competitive. But with specialty coffee, I feel the competition is friendlier. I can actually call them for help and ask for advice on let’s say, equipment, so it’s really different.”
I ask Kaye about her winning recipe (she used the same recipe for both local and world AeroPress competitions), and she was more than happy to share. “The Costa Rica that we had, it was very bright. Oh, and it was very juicy but not that berry-ish. I feel the flavors were more citrusy with a very slight, nutty undertone but definitely juicy. That was one of the things that stood out. I can’t explain it, but you know when you eat grapes that are good? And it’s just like a burst of juiciness? It was something like that.”
Kaye recalls being very nervous during both competitions—“beer helped me get by!” she laughs. “When my name was called [as the winner in this year’s Philippine AeroPress Competition and 3rd place in the World Competition], the first thing I felt was disbelief—like ‘what???? What just happened???’ It felt really amazing eventually because just a year ago, we were just watching the exact same competition and were all star-struck with the winners! It feels surreal because less than a year ago, we were just talking about coffee, and this year, I was actually competing for it!
I guess I’m still in that stage where ‘shit, we’re just starting out in this industry!’; I feel we’re like babies. I think more than anything, I’m still in disbelief. But at the same time, in my mind, even if we didn’t really have any formal coffee education, everything that we do in the shop or at home, we learn from on our own. I guess winning gave me a little bit of assurance that we’re doing the right thing.”
Despite her winnings and gained confidence in preparing a fine cup of specialty coffee, Kaye tells me that she has carried a soft spot for the instant variety. “I won’t tell you that I was a coffee purist from the start. 3-in-1 coffee was a huge part of my life before that I would have to take it just so I can get through the day in the office. Because I had a day job, it was my go-to drink, and it helped me survive the corporate life.
“I guess, the most important thing that I’ve learned and am continuing to learn is that coffee isn’t just a beverage that you drink out of function. I feel like maybe, people have stereotyped coffee as this drink that’s bitter and maybe even as a status symbol, but there are just so many things that we can learn about that drink. For me, the most important thing is the taste. You need to know what you want to taste in order for you to deliver the kind of coffee or product that you want.
“I still need to take coffee before I start my day, but this time around, I’m appreciating specialty coffee more and more. At the same time, now I take it as a drink that I actually enjoy. Like having dessert, for example—you get something, and you actually enjoy it for its flavor, for its taste, not just for the function. For me, that’s what coffee is now.”
Kaye is the Philippines’ AeroPress Champion, and she ranks third place in the whole world. But Kaye has her feet planted firmly on the ground. “I learn everyday. It’s nice to be recognized as such and such, but at the end of the day, we’re all still learning.” As a woman, she jokingly tells me that she sometimes feels the need to be a little less girly than she normally is, but in a way she is so proud to a woman. “Okay, I’m a girl, and I’m doing this in an industry where most men take the lead. It was great hearing people cheer for me during the Philippine AeroPress Championship with ‘Go, girl power!’ Hopefully I get to empower other girls also to join this industry.”
Tell us about your favorite specialty coffee experience? Do you think there should be more female baristas in Metro Manila? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!