Pour your Passion - an Interview with Shawn Chen

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Poised with a mug securely nestled in the palm of his hand, Shawn Chen focuses on the inside of the cup. He skillfully maneuvers a stream of frothy milk, cascading into the coffee, and within seconds a perfect winged tulip appears. 

For Shawn, this has become second nature. Based in Taiwan, Shawn was drawn to coffee due to a sincere interest in coffee making and started working in small cafes when he was 28. This shift into the coffee industry guided his career into becoming the head trainer at Milkglider Latte Artist Unity, and launching his own brand. After hosting a series of workshops with Bettr Barista, we asked him to share a few of his thoughts and experiences with us.

BB: When did you discover coffee? What intrigued you to take on latte art?

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Shawn: I started in coffee at the age of 28. Through working at smaller cafes, I gained many like-minded friends and I started practising the art of making coffee. But I had zero knowledge and experience in the industry - so I realised that I needed to find someone with expertise. I found a mentor who gave advice and consultations to smaller cafes, and thus began my interest to pursue coffee in my own way. It took 4 to 5 years of testing and developing my own methods before opening Milkglider, and later on my own brand, Shawn Coffee & Latte Art.

“Seeing patterns and art forming on a cup of coffee gives me a feeling of comfort - it is a beautiful thing.”

I was intrigued to take on latte art first and foremost because of having passion and love for the art. Seeing patterns and art forming on a cup of coffee gives me a feeling of comfort - it is a beautiful thing. It gives me a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, so I began promoting and educating people on latte art to help deepen everyday knowledge of coffee for the consumer. That hopefully sparks their interest in coffee. The easiest way to do that is through visuals, like latte art, rather than the technical aspects of sensory and tasting; people may lose their interest due to the complexity and lack of knowledge.

Milkglider won awards at the Coffee Fest Latte Art World Championships for two years in a row. What was that experience like?

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You know, the most important takeaway for me is to be able to understand myself, manage my emotions, and mentally prepare myself. During a competition, being too focused on the technical aspects is not as important as being able to manage emotions and perform under pressure. The ability to handle pressure and relax during a competition is crucial. Be it drinking a bit of alcohol, *laughs* chewing gum, or listening to music, it may vary from person to person.

“The most important takeaway for me is to be able to understand myself, manage my emotions, and mentally prepare myself.”

It personally took me a lot of time to get familiar with the competitive environment, and not make performance the main goal. You have to enjoy the process of it.

The mental and emotional aspect of your latte art performances resonates with the emotional training we advocate for at Bettr Barista. Along that journey of knowing yourself through coffee, what has been your proudest or most memorable moment while learning latte art or competing?

There are a few moments worth noting. When I started off practising as a beginner, I had a hard time learning to make latte art without any mentorship. Things changed when I finally met like-minded friends who were constantly eager to learn - that made me improve significantly. Winning local competitions in Taiwan in my early days encouraged me to eventually pursue latte art competitively. And of course, when I started teaching and I saw my legacy being passed onto students who began competing as well - that was very fulfilling.

In your experience, what are the biggest challenges for teaching latte art? What is the most common mistake you see in aspiring latte artists?

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The biggest challenge for me in the beginning was having patience with slower learners. It affected me personally when a student wasn’t able to perform. But eventually, I had to learn to accept the fact that people have different learning speeds and I would have to change my approach for those students. Many people would give up halfway, but I wouldn’t give up on them. I have to make the techniques easier to understand. On the other hand, for keen learners, I encourage them to continuously exchange ideas and techniques. 

“Many people would give up halfway, but I wouldn’t give up on them. I have to make the techniques easier to understand.”

The most common mistakes in aspiring artists are found in the technique of steaming milk and getting the right textured milk. Most beginners are in a rush to make complicated latte art before they’re actually strong enough in the foundations of pouring techniques. So, they end up making unimpressive art.

If I could go back to when I was starting out, I would tell myself to learn how to roast coffee! It’s a pity, because I think I could really create even more with the skill of roasting.

What would you say to your customers about the value of latte art, and what do you want to continue focusing on?

For customers, the taste and quality should come before the art. Ideally, you need to get the taste right before incorporating art into the drink. The difference is when it comes to competitive latte art, where the drink doesn’t even get tasted. Then I would prioritise the art over the taste.

“The taste and quality should come before the art.”

For me, I would like to still be in the same industry even after the next ten years. Coffee is still my greatest passion, so it won’t be taken away. Specialty coffee definitely won’t fade away either, it’s going to grow even further as more and more people appreciate coffee. 

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Lastly, what do you find unique about teaching at Bettr Barista?

It’s my third year coming to Bettr, and teaching here is great! I cherish every opportunity I get to come here. Bettr has such a wonderful space, environment and facilities to teach aspiring baristas and help those that are less fortunate. This is something that Taiwan is lacking. 

What I find here at Bettr Barista is a sense of collaboration, and I really wish to have greater unity among players in the coffee industry. We can better spread the knowledge of speciality coffee this way, rather than see each other as competitors.