Foodie Confidential

Cafe owner Dave Lim brews tea like coffee

Sun Ray Cafe owner Dave Lim making tea in a coffee brewer. He is participating in the international Tea Masters Cup later this year.
Sun Ray Cafe owner Dave Lim making tea in a coffee brewer. He is participating in the international Tea Masters Cup later this year.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Cafe owner Dave Lim came out tops in tea brewing and tea pairing at Singapore's first Tea Masters Cup, using coffee-brewing techniques

Most people would show up at a tea-brewing competition with tea pots and cups.

Not Mr Dave Lim.

The owner of Sun Ray Cafe in Serangoon Garden took along an eyebrow-raising set of equipment: a syphon coffee brewer, a V60 coffee dripper typically used to make filter coffee and a cold-brew coffeemaker.

The 40-year-old was one of seven participants in the inaugural Singapore edition of Tea Masters Cup, an annual competition for professionals in the industry.

The competition, held two weeks ago, comprises three segments: tea brewing, tea pairing and tea tasting.

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Mr Lim emerged top in the first two segments and will advance to the international leg of the competition later this year. The venue has not been confirmed. Last year's finals were held in South Korea in June.

Rounding off the competition is the tea-tasting segment, which he did not win. Participants had to identify 10 types of teas from sipping and sniffing them. He says: "I was rather tired by the last round and tasting the teas requires full concentration to detect the subtle differences in flavours and mouthfeel."

For the tea-brewing segment, participants had to brew two types of tea in 15 minutes. Instead of steeping the tea leaves in hot water, he used a syphon coffee brewer to brew tieguanyin tea leaves from Anxi, China, to "fully present its flavours".

He says: "The pressure build-up in the lower chamber of the syphon coffee brewer, which is continuously heated, forces the water into the upper chamber and rapidly agitates the rolled-up tea leaves there. The leaves expand while dancing in the bubbling water, so more tea flavours are extracted in a short time."

This unorthodox brewing method is also practical.

Mr Lim says it does not require as much attention as steeping tea in hot water, as he does not need to constantly check if the tea is ready.

Another tea he brewed was a Darjeeling tea from India with a V60 coffee dripper.

This brewing method is suitable for powdered tea leaves, which resemble coffee grounds, and yields an even extraction of flavours when hot water is poured over the leaves.

He explains: "The metal filter in the V60 coffee dripper blocks the astringency in the tea and gives fullbodied and well-rounded flavours."

For the competition's tea-pairing segment, he created a buttery brioche topped with pear jam infused with camellia and Taiwan Oriental beauty teas to match the honey and floral notes of a cold-brewed organic Indonesian black tea.

He is attending a 15-week Tea Mastery Course run by Australian Tea Masters, a tea education organisation that conducts certification courses in tea mastery and blending as well as training for tea sommeliers.

On his out-of-the-box approach to teas, Mr Lim, who is single, says: "Tea is adaptable to different cultures around the world, from Japanese tea ceremonies to the gongfu tea-brewing method from China. I like to unlock a new world of tea flavours through unconventional ways."

You have been a barista for four years. What got you interested in tea?

Before I joined the Tea Mastery Course, most teas tasted similar to me. My cafe was serving good quality coffee and I had studied coffee. However, I was serving blended and flavoured teas. I felt I was letting the world of teas down and it was an interesting world that I wanted to explore.

Why do you think there is growing interest in speciality teas here?

Consumers are moving from commercial tea and looking for finer and more subtle flavours in tea. The boom in the local coffee scene was aided by annual barista championships. These competitions pit seasoned and new baristas against one another in the spirit of learning and discovering new beans and brewing techniques. Likewise, the Tea Masters Cup generates interest in speciality teas and accelerates learning.

What is the main difference between coffee and tea?

Coffee has more platforms to showcase your skills, from roasting the beans and brewing to operating the espresso machine and doing latte art. What you can do with tea is rather limited. However, there is a wide variety of teas from various regions around the world.

How many cups of tea do you drink daily?

I drink about 10 small cups. I need to be in a more zen state of mind to pick out the more subtle flavours in tea and this has sharpened my palate, which also allows me to appreciate coffee more.

What are your favourite tea leaves?

I like tieguanyin tea from Anxi, China. It is a luscious oolong tea that has curious notes of spinach, cream and hazelnut. I also like snow dragon white tea from Vietnam, which has subtle fruity notes with a hint of white pepper.

Which are the best cups of coffee you have drunk?

One is an espresso from One Fifteenth Coffee, a cafe in Jakarta. It is made from a blend of Arabica beans from Bali and Sumatra and tastes like starfruit.

Another coffee is an espresso pulled from Ethiopian Amaro Gayo beans that I tasted when I was judging in a barista competition in 2014. It had clear notes of blueberries and cream.

What is your favourite food and where do you go for it?

I've been a vegetarian for more than 20 years. I go to Choo Zai Chai Vegetarian Food stall in Circuit Road Food Centre for its sambal fish, which is made with beancurd skin. I seldom eat mock meat, but the sauce gives a spicy explosion in the mouth.

I also like Madura Restaurant in Syed Alwi Road for its savoury sweet pita bread that is baked with dried cranberries. I usually eat palak paneer with it. It is rich and savoury with springy cubes of cheese.

What is the most memorable meal you have eaten overseas?

A five-course vegetarian degustation menu at one-Michelin-starred restaurant Roca Moo in Barcelona, Spain, five years ago. I was intrigued by the five-course meal as it had flash-frozen vegetables. Everything that I ate melted in my mouth.

If you could choose anyone to have a meal with, who would that be?

Physicist Albert Einstein as I've always been fascinated by how the universe works. He is a brilliant person. His theories - such as those on gravitational waves - were proven to be true years after he died. I want him to explain his theories over a cup of tea.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 19, 2017, with the headline 'Barista brews tea like coffee'. Print Edition | Subscribe