Ploy sets the timer, and the seconds march toward zero. Without pausing for conversation — or checking the clock, for that matter — the young barista darts from task to task. She secures a tawny funnel with her fingertips and pours hot water from a goose neck kettle over coarse grounds. Her hands are steady. When she does speak, her voice barely exceeds a whisper. She’s something of a relic, wearing a bob cut straight out of Amélie and an apron that looks like a blacksmith’s overalls. Her quiet demeanour, Steam punk look, and razor-sharp focus betray her industry. As the timer ticks down, the pot fills with mahogany-hued coffee, steam cloaking the sides of the glass, and a smile splits her lips. She’s made another perfect pour of a single origin Papua New Guinea grind.
It’s early in the afternoon of a Saturday in August. The air is humid and the sky overcast, threatening showers. Within the warm clutter of Roots on Soi Ekamai, however, few are bothered by the storm brewing outside. Customers trickle in every couple of minutes, grabbing a seat at one of the few tables or settling in at the wooden bar, wedged between the pastry kitchen for Roast and the window, where they get an unadulterated view of baristas like Ploy hard at work. One man listens to music on his iPhone. Two girls chitchat. A couple strike up conversation with one of the baristas.
Despite the profusion of cafés popping up suggesting otherwise — and the overwhelming volume of coffee shop photos appearing on Instagram — the life of a barista is neither as simple, nor as quaint, as it would seem. Witsawawit “Tam” Chantaweesomboon, a head barista and floor manager at Roots, began to appreciate the nuance in coffee while studying in Australia, but it took years for him to sharpen the skills he would need to climb the ladder at Roots. While customers are eagerly suggested to learn about the process behind their coffee, upstart baristas must know it inside and out. “It starts with knowledge. You have to understand coffee before you can practice,” says Tam.
As he describes the factors that influence taste, Tam’s eyes light up behind his glasses. He mentions the varietal Catimor as if it were common knowledge, and returns repeatedly to blueberry as the true indicator of ideal flavour. “If it tastes like green banana, the beans aren’t ripe,” he says. “When the packaging is loose, or the bag has been on the ground, that affects the quality. Soil, altitude, the side of the mountain the plants grown on, if the beans are too dry — that all affects taste.”
In its three-plus years of existence, Roots has become a willing lodestone for coffee connoisseurs. The atmosphere at the café is communal, home-like, and its no-frills, lived-in character has attracted hosts of regulars. So too has its simple “pay what you think is fair” policy for drinks and pastries. On this Saturday, one customer has come from Singapore on the recommendation of a friend. “It’s amazing how coffee has changed here,” he says between sips of the house blend espresso, chased, to his bemusement, with the palate-cleansing sparkling water served with his coffee. “It’s like in Singapore, [where] there’s a tradition of mixing that really thick, oil black coffee with incredibly sweet condensed milk. That’s how our grandfathers enjoyed it. This is a far cry from those days.”
As Ploy works the pour-over station, Tam sidles up beside her. He adjusts his glasses before scooping grounds into a French press, covering them evenly with near-boiling water. Baristas at Roots, he explains, are trained in every facet of coffee making and management, from steamed milk and latte art to roasting beans, extraction and strength, finding the proper grind, and floor experience. That makes them less cogs in a machine than jacks-of-all-trades. Every week, they switch stations —next week, Ploy might man the espresso machine, or perhaps the steamed milk station, where cups are polished off with latte art, a skill that takes months of daily practice to perfect — not only to fend off boredom, but also to better understand harmony in coffee, from the fruit to the cup.
During this shift, three baristas work behind the narrow bar, bound by a wall on one side and swinging gates on the other. Tam, the floor manager, lends a hand when necessary. Space is tight. The bar is not a bar, in the traditional sense. Espresso machines, French presses, siphons, Aero Press devices, and beaker-like cold brew gear provide a laboratory-like effect; their presence is symbolic, speaking to the encyclopaedic knowledge of the staff, but they also represent the café’s unkempt style. The machines are decorated with curled paper artwork. The dish rags are mismatched. About the only thing that’s uniform is the Machine Age look of the baristas. The men are clad in denim and magnolia blue, their facial hair either scruffy or moustachioed, resembling mechanics in the shop.
As Tam looks over the bar and into the pastry kitchen, where two chefs are sprinkling cinnamon sugar onto flattened dough, he explains that new baristas typically train four hours in the shop each week, but they’re more or less expected to practice at home, and often. Though the café is open only on the weekend, the team meets each Friday, sharing new knowledge and coming together for coffee cuppings. They learn each day so that they can spread knowledge to their customers, says Tam. It’s a holistic approach to coffee that keeps energy levels high and passion on point.
Working mechanically, Ploy puts the finishing touches on another pour-over coffee. She fills a Ball jar with the piping hot liquid and places it on a tray with a ceramic cup and a business-card-sized piece of cardstock, emblazoned with the Roots logo, which provides information about this particular brew. She moves on to the next task, adding 20 grams of fresh grounds to the filter. Then she resets the clock to two minutes and ten seconds. When the time is right, Ploy starts over again.