烘豆達人賴昱權 世界咖啡奪冠

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2015 / 1月

文‧劉嫈楓 圖‧林格立


2014年是台灣咖啡界的豐收年。世界咖啡大賽、咖啡大賽等重要國際賽事,都見到台灣選手大放異彩。

 

1980年次、咖啡生涯13年的賴昱權,為台灣贏得2014年世界咖啡大賽的烘豆冠軍,讓外界對於台灣咖啡人才實力,大為驚艷。

 

憑著傻瓜般的熱情,烘焙屬於自己的咖啡冠軍夢,新生代賴昱權的咖啡實力不容小覷。


2014WCE世界烘豆大賽冠軍的紅色祝賀彩帶,襯著「自然醒咖啡」的綠色招牌,顯得格外醒目。

十多年前,精品咖啡風氣尚未盛行時,混和奶精、砂糖的三合一即溶咖啡,是多數台灣人與咖啡的初體驗;那時賴昱權尚年幼,但那股混著苦甜的滋味,似乎仍留在嘴裡久久不去。

2001年,賴昱權離開家鄉宜蘭,南下至盛產咖啡的雲林古坑就讀環球科技大學視覺設計系,那時他在學校附近的複合式餐廳打工,老闆將烘豆工作交由他負責。看似接下重擔,但當時烘豆卻是餐廳裡最輕鬆的工作。賴昱權就此跨入芳香的咖啡世界,他開始大量涉獵咖啡書籍,自學沖泡技巧,就連學校的行銷、設計課程,賴昱權繳出的作業也都和咖啡有關。2008年,賴昱權畢業離開雲林,特地上網找尋專家如何精進技術,最後來到宜蘭向台灣精品咖啡圈頗為知名的咖啡專家George Wang學習。

4年半的時間裡,他從頭學習品嚐、沖泡咖啡,鍛鍊基本功。「就像廚師做料理,必先懂得品嚐料理,烘出好豆子前,也得先學會喝好咖啡。」賴昱權說。兩段為人工作的經驗,全是為了一圓學生時代就萌芽的創業夢。

遠赴美國,向咖啡大師取經

2012年,他離開工作的咖啡館,準備創業。開業前,他特地安排了一趟取經之旅。賴昱權跑遍美國紐約、西雅圖、華盛頓等城市品嚐咖啡,並前往波士頓拜訪仰慕許久的精品咖啡大師,喬治‧霍爾(George Howell)。

賴昱權表示,曾在咖啡館嚐到喬治‧霍爾烘焙的咖啡豆沖出的咖啡,一入口,鼻腔充盈黑莓果般的香氣,嘴巴則留下烤甘蔗的香甜口感,餘韻中的柑橘酸度,令他讚嘆不已。當下,他便決定來到咖啡水準一流的美國,探訪這位大師成功的秘訣。

經過朋友牽線,賴昱權費盡辛苦,終於見到喬治‧霍爾。一見面,他隨即掩不住興奮,脫口喊出「Oh! Coffee Master」向他心中最仰慕的偶像致敬。親和力十足的喬治,引領賴昱權參訪自家公司的烘焙工廠,體驗咖啡專業設備,大大啟發了剛起步的賴昱權。

期間兩人在評鑑咖啡的過程中不斷交換經驗。當喬治得知賴昱權未受過任何咖啡杯測訓練,卻具備專業的品評能力時,大力鼓勵他投入杯測訓練,提升專業。

從好喝到一杯「好」咖啡

2012年4月,結束為期一個月的咖啡之旅,賴昱權帶著滿滿的心得返回台灣,靠著前東家邱世宗贊助的小型咖啡烘焙機,開設了第一家咖啡館「自然醒」,並考取專門品評咖啡香氣、口感與餘韻的美國精品咖啡協會認證杯測評審資格。

然而,精進技術之餘,賴昱權經營咖啡館的壓力也隨之而來。所幸經過半年,自然醒透過一系列的咖啡品嚐體驗活動,逐漸培養出懂得品嚐精品咖啡的客群;最初的小型烘豆機已不敷使用,機器升級為價值新台幣35萬元、烘焙量30公斤的大型機種,以應付日益興隆的生意。

不料撞牆期開始浮現。賴昱權剛入行時,台灣精品咖啡風氣剛起,咖啡的好與壞常因主觀評價陷入見仁見智的爭議,並無標準可循;跨入精品咖啡後,烘豆技術成了賴昱權的瓶頸。

賴昱權表示,烘豆過程極其辛苦,豆溫高達400度,到了夏天,烘豆室更是燠熱難耐。而豆子的風味取決於風溫、豆溫等因素,一旦控制變因改變,結果就會不一樣。幾次烘焙結果,風味都不如預期,讓賴昱權懊惱不已,「有回烘了七、八十公斤,因表現不出最佳味道,只好全數倒掉。」他說。

堅持高標準,只因他認為,烘出的咖啡豆,代表的就是自己。賴昱權說,業務銷售業績不佳,還能怪罪產品不佳、行銷錯誤等外在因素;但咖啡豆的風味,全仰賴烘豆師的手藝,「豆子烘不好證明自己技術不佳,還能怪罪誰?」他反問。

2012年取得美國精品咖啡協會認證咖啡杯測評審資格,賴昱權又取得了歐洲精品咖啡協會等專業認證。為了提升團隊水準,賴昱權還提供經費,讓工作一年以上的員工報考「吧檯手」專業證照,並邀請歐洲精品咖啡協會專家來台,為員工授課。店裡寫著價目表的黑板一翻面就是白板,讓愜意的咖啡館,隨時可變身為教室。

當年因為喬治‧霍爾無私分享而深受啟發的賴昱權也承襲這樣的精神,與一群擁有生物、物理、機械專業背景的咖啡同好,共同組成「木棉花會」,定期舉辦聚會、交流心得。「包括烘焙瓦斯火力、機器設備等疑難雜症,都能在交流會得到解答。」賴昱權說。

證明專業,叩關世界咖啡大賽

2013年,賴昱權的咖啡生涯邁向第12年,為了證明專業,他決定挑戰有「咖啡奧斯卡」之稱的WCE世界咖啡大賽烘豆競賽。不料,當年強敵環伺,他只繳出了台灣區選拔賽第12名的成績,無緣晉級。隔年,他捲土重來,終於奪下台灣區冠軍,並在2周後代表台灣,飛往義大利與世界好手一較高下。

比賽第一天,賴昱權到現場才發現,主辦單位提供的荷蘭品牌Giesen烘豆機,是台灣少有機會接觸的機型,相較日韓選手多以這部機器模擬培訓,他只能利用現場的機會,當場熟悉機器,盡快進入最佳狀況。

第二關的測試,大會則要求選手烘焙同一款咖啡評比。以往,選手必須在3種咖啡豆中選出一款烘焙。此回賽事規則改變,選手只能以單一豆種競賽,賴昱權本以為能以自己擅長的杯測專業,取得優勢。不料,無從選擇,一切只能全憑烘豆師的真本事。

進入評審階段後,選手也同時展開試喝,由於彼此的差距微乎其微,到最後誰也搞不清楚哪款咖啡是自己的作品。「參與的選手都是各國箇中好手,最終烘出的豆子,差距僅在厘米之間。」賴昱權表示。

賽程結束後,由於自認烘出的豆子風味未如預期完美,賴昱權一度認為奪獎機會渺茫。因此,當大會宣布由他奪下2014年WCE世界咖啡大賽烘豆冠軍時,他大感意外。興奮之餘,他認為自己的獲獎多少帶點「幸運」成份,並自謙地表示「我不過是台灣眾多優秀烘豆師的其中之一,並無權代表台灣,只是一位來自台灣的選手而已。」

在冠軍光環加持下,自然醒業績大幅成長。除了自然醒以及提供外帶服務的「握咖啡」3家門市,賴昱權還計畫在高雄美術館附近,成立一處集結咖啡館、烘豆室與專業培訓教室3重功能的「咖啡工廠」。

賴昱權獲獎後,環球科技大學校長許舒翔特地組團南下高雄,頒發榮譽校友獎座給他。因此,不到50坪的店面,又將再添一道光環。愛上咖啡,自稱為「浪漫傻瓜」的賴昱權,將不時帶著一抹微笑,閉上雙眼,品聞香氣縈繞的咖啡,畫下心中理想的咖啡藍圖。

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EN

Bean Roaster Jacky Lai Brings Home a Coffee Cup

Liu Yingfeng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Phil Newell

2014 was a banner year for Taiwan’s coffee community, as competitors from Taiwan made a big splash at a variety of international coffee competitions. In particular, Jacky Lai, a 34-year-old with 13 years of coffee experience, brought home the top prize for bean roasting in the World Coffee Roasting Championship, a feat that really opened the eyes of observers to the surprisingly high skill level among coffee professionals in Taiwan. Driven by what he describes as a “crazy dream,” Lai, for whom roasting is part of a larger java journey, is a force to be reckoned with.


A red congratulatory banner celebrating the top prize at the 2014 World Coffee Roasting Championship hangs gracefully from the green sign of Café Wakeup. As befits the shop’s name, the banner is a real eye-opener.

A couple of decades ago, when the fad for high-grade coffee had yet to arrive in Taiwan, most people’s first experience with the beverage was “three-in-one” packs of instant coffee mixed with powdered creamer and sugar. Lai, though then only a child, says that the combination of bitterness and sickly sweetness still seems to linger on his palate to this day.

In 2001, Lai left his home in Yi­lan County to study in the Department of Visual Communication Design at Trans­World University, located in Gu­keng, Yun­lin ­County— Taiwan’s most important coffee producing area. While in school Lai took a part-time job in a restaurant, where the boss put him in charge of roasting the coffee beans. Though that might sound like a heavy responsibility, in fact at that time it was seen as the easiest job in the joint.

Having thus been introduced into the fragrant coffee cosmos, Lai began to collect books on the subject and to study brewing techniques on his own. The obsession spilled over into his schoolwork, as his projects for classes like marketing and design all were coffee-related. In 2008, when Lai graduated and left Yun­lin, he began searching on the Internet for specialists all over the world teaching advanced coffee skills, and his search, ironically enough, took him back to Yi­lan, where he began learning from George Wang, a well-known and highly respected expert in Taiwan.

During his four-and-a-half years of study, he started from square one: drinking coffee. More specifically, he had to develop his palate to appreciate the subtleties of authentically good coffee. “Just as a chef has to understand how to discern the taste nuances of fine cuisine before he can learn to make it, you have to know what good coffee tastes like before you can produce a high-quality roast,” Lai explains. The experience that Lai gained in these two jobs was all directed at realizing a dream that first came to him as a notion in his student days: opening his own coffee shop.

All the way to Beantown

In 2012, Lai left the coffee shop where he was working to strike out on his own. Before going into business, however, he first embarked on a java journey to learn from the best. He visited New York, Seattle, Washington DC, and Boston, where he went specifically to pay his respects to a coffee master whom he had long admired named George Howell.

Lai explains that he once tried some coffee made from beans that had been roasted by Howell, and it was awesome. As soon as he took the first sip, his nasal passages and throat were suffused by a blackberry-like fragrance, and a sweet and aromatic sense of roasted sugarcane was left in his mouth. He was also enthralled by the citrus acidity in the aftertaste. On the spot he decided that he would visit the US to learn the secrets of this maestro’s success.

After enormous effort and some help through his friends’ connections, Lai was finally able to meet Howell in person. Thrilled, Lai blurted out “Oh! Coffee Master!” to his idol. Howell, a very affable man, took Lai on a tour of his own coffee roasting plant, where Lai tried out for the first time the highly specialized equipment. This was an enormously enlightening experience for Lai, who had just taken his first steps in the business.

Not your average Joe

In April of 2012, having completed his month-long coffee tour, Lai returned to Taiwan, his mind filled with things he had learned and new ideas that were inspired by his experiences. With only one small coffee roaster purchased with funds provided by his former employer Qiu Shi­zong, Lai opened his first shop, Café Wakeup.

However, even as Lai was still sharpening his skills, he immediately had to deal with the pressures that come with managing the business of a coffee shop. Fortunately, after half a year or so, thanks in part to a series of coffee tasting events held by Café Wakeup, Lai had steadily built up a clientele of coffee connoisseurs. The small roaster he had first used was no longer sufficient to meet his needs, so he upgraded to a larger type—costing NT$350,000, and with a roasting capacity of 30 kilograms—to meet the flourishing demand for his java.

Little did he expect that he would immediately hit a wall. Lai relates that the taste of coffee beans is determined by several factors, including the temperature of the air in the roasting barrel and the temperature of the beans themselves. If the controlling factors change, the results will change as well. Lai tried many times to roast beans with his new equipment, but the results didn’t meet his expectations, leaving him vexed, perplexed, and wondering what to do next. “Once I roasted 70 or 80 kilos of beans at one time, but because the flavor was not optimal, I threw the whole batch out.”

The reason that Lai stuck to his high standards is that, for him, the coffee beans he roasts are a manifestation of his own inner self: it is not coffee that he is putting out there, it is Jacky Lai. He says that if sales are poor, you can always blame impersonal factors like lousy materials or a misguided marketing strategy. But the taste of his coffee beans is entirely in his own hands, and depends entirely on his mastery of the art. He says, “If the beans are badly roasted, it proves I just don’t make the grade skill-wise. Who else could I blame for that but myself?”

In 2012 Lai earned his certification as a “coffee cupping” judge from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, and went on to gain specialty certification from the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe (SCAE). In order to upgrade the skill level of his whole team, Lai has provided funding for staff who have worked for him for at least one year to register for the barista certification exam, and he has also invited experts from the SCAE to come to Taiwan to give classes to his employees.

Lai, who benefited so much from George Howell’s selfless sharing of expertise, has adopted the same spirit. Along with some coffee aficionados of diverse backgrounds in biology, physics, and mechanical engineering, he has organized a group which meets regularly to exchange ideas. “In these meetings we have solved a lot of practical problems, from something as small as the ideal setting of the gas flame for roasting to matters involving machinery and facilities,” says Lai.

Ruling the roast

By 2013, Lai had accumulated 12 years of experience with coffee. In an effort to confirm his qualifications, he decided to compete in the WCE World Coffee Roasting Championship—known by insiders as the “Oscars” of coffee-bean cooking. He did not anticipate that his adversaries would be so accomplished that he would finish only 12th in the Taiwan regional round. But he came back again in 2014, and this time was named Taiwan’s roasting champion. Two weeks later, he flew to Italy to represent Taiwan in taking on the finest coffee roasters in the world.

The first day of the competition, Lai discovered that the organizers had elected to use bean roasters made by ­Giesen, a type of machine rarely found in Taiwan. In contrast to competitors from Japan and Korea, who had practiced on this model prior to the event, Lai could only try to familiarize himself with the machine at the venue, to get it into an optimal state as quickly as possible.

Lai next found himself confronted with a second challenge: The organizers decided that competitors would all have to use the same type of coffee bean for comparison. In the past, participants had been allowed to choose one of three types of approved beans. But in 2014 the rules were changed so that everyone had to use a single type. Lai had originally thought that he could use his expertise in cupping to get an edge on his rivals, but now he had no choice: everything would come down to the roast.

The participants all simultaneously produced their coffee for tasting by the judges. Because the distinctions between them were miniscule, by the end it was difficult for even the competitors to tell which coffee was their own! “These were all top-notch roasters from their respective countries,” Lai explains, “and there was only a nano-difference between the final roasted beans.”

Lai says that his own roast did not come up to his initial expectations, so he thought that his chances of winning were remote. That’s why he was startled when he was declared the 2014 world roasting champion.

Basking in the glory of this honor, Café Wakeup’s business has soared. Currently, in addition to the original Café Wakeup and three “Oh! Café” outlets which specialize in take-out orders, Lai plans to open a multi-functional “coffee factory” near the Kao­hsiung Museum of Fine Arts that will be part coffee shop, part bean roastery, and part classroom for specialized training.

After Lai won the title, Trans­World University president Hsu Shu-­hsiang specially organized a group to head down to Kao­hsiung and present Lai with an award as a “distinguished alumnus,” thereby gracing the small coffee shop of only about 160 square meters with yet another accolade. As we say goodbye, Lai, who describes himself as a kind of “crazy dreamer,” stands before the champion­ship cup that he brought back from the world roasting event, a slight smile on his lips, eyes closed, and inhales the rich fragrance out of the coffee cup in his hands.

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