Craft Cafe on Quayside drive bustles with the 3 p.m. crowd — the clink of cups, and a strong smell of ground coffee hang in the air.
Sitting on the patio, facing the Mighty Fraser River, Dixon Ip, an international coffee judge, takes measured sips of his black coffee, and notes, “I have a mission over here that’s coffee related.”
Ip moved from Hong Kong to New Westminster in July 2022. He has judged coffee roasting championships in Japan and Ukraine, latte art championships in Indonesia and China, and Turkish coffee championship in Greece, among others.
But he is not in New West to judge a cuppa joe; this is home for the "next few years at least," he says.
There is a project brewing, he hints — but first, coffee.
How to taste a coffee?
"We have to enjoy the aroma,” says Ip, after agreeing to serve up a crash course in coffee tasting.
This reporter's lukewarm cappuccino smells like...well, coffee.
“That is too late to smell,” he says.
The natural aromatic compounds, which are lightweight and volatile, escape in the first couple of minutes, he explains. That smell would indicate whether the coffee has a floral or fruity tinge to it.
“Second, when you taste your coffee, keep breathing,” he says.
Taking a big inhale while also slurping the coffee seems forced. But it’s an important step, says Ip.
“There is a misunderstanding that the tongue is responsible for all the taste, it's not. Tongue can only tell sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. But how can we judge aromas like lavender or rose? We have to smell... make sure that our air passage is open,” he adds, with a quick demonstration.
“Next, the temperature,” notes Ip, even as our coffees slowly turn cold in the evening breeze. That doesn’t bother him though — as a judge, he is required to taste a black coffee when it’s hot, warm and cold, he says.
Traditionally, people were required to finish their coffee while it’s still hot, but it needn’t be so — you can nurse your cup of java an entire afternoon if you please (more applicable to a black coffee), he assures.
Large cappuccinos and lattes have to be served extra hot as one would take a long time to finish it; meanwhile, a macchiato, which is served in a small cup, has to be warm as it’s expected to be consumed in a couple of sips, he says.
Finally, once you take a sip, a good coffee — take it from a world coffee judge — always leaves a good aroma and a long-lasting taste in your mouth.
Life as a coffee judge
Pre-COVID, Ip travelled to as many as seven to eight countries every year — judging championships such as World Barista Championship (“to celebrate baristas who make coffee using espresso machines”), World Coffee in Good Spirits Championship (“to taste the best coffee cocktail, like the Irish Coffee”), World Brewers Cup (“to select the best coffee professional who can brew coffee manually”), World Latte Art Championship (“to judge the pattern on a latte”) and more.
The championships, which happen in over 55 countries, are organized by the World Coffee Events, an event management organization under the non-profit Specialty Coffee Association (that connects coffee professionals the world over).
Each championship, which goes on for about five days, sees participants from as many as 50 countries.
Which means, there's a lot of coffee to judge; at the World Barista Championship, for example, Dixon judges six to eight competitors a day. Altogether — including tasting the signature drink, special coffee, coffees at different temperatures, and so on — he takes about 36 sips of coffee a day.
But Ip has no complaints. As a judge, he is not required to finish the cup.
“It’s kind of like — just taste enough coffee to score it.”
Though, one of the Coffee in Good Spirits (spiked coffee) championships did get him buzzed, he recollects.
From IT to Coffee
But how did Ip, who used to be the chief information officer of GE's Japan and South Asia regions, turn a coffee judge?
“It was becoming boring,” as Ip simply puts it about his IT stint. He decided to yeet his IT career in 2008 and start a small coffee shop.
“But at the time, I knew nothing about coffee. I just knew that I liked the aroma and the taste,” he adds with a laugh.
Ip's coffee shop focused on siphon coffee, a Japanese way of brewing coffee using a glass apparatus. But as a coffee shop owner, he felt he needed to know more about coffee.
So he went to Seoul, Korea for a five-day course on coffee brewing, and came back with a certificate and a deep dissatisfaction with the coffee that he himself sold, he recollects.
Ip threw his net wider, and imported small batches of green coffee from the United States, the U.K., and Taiwan; and roasted them all by himself at the shop.
This went on for a while, but he realized there's more to coffee industry than just running a coffee shop.
He joined the Coffee Association of Hong Kong; introduced world coffee competitions to the region; and decided to become a volunteer coffee judge.
There are written and practical tests you have to clear before you become a World Coffee Events certified judge; plus you have to have two years of judging experience at the national level before you can scale up to the international level, he says.
Ip completed his certification in 2012, and started judging at world coffee championships in 2013.
There is a big demand for coffee judges, he says — for a competition with 50 participants, as many as 40 judges are required.
Ip, who is one of the 55 representatives of World Coffee Events, also trains local judges. But for those who would like to do what he does, he recommends signing up for The World Competitions Educational Program that can prep them for taking up the World Coffee Events Judge certification eventually.
On a coffee-related mission
"So, what's the mission?" this reporter reminds the coffee savant.
It's one called Cupa (that's not a typo).
Cupa is an app (available on web and Apple phones) that lets small cafés connect with customers — just as big chains such as Starbucks do with their loyalty programs and membership system.
“If a small café wants to have its own membership program, they will have to spend thousands of dollars to develop it. Then there is also the maintenance effort," he says, presenting Cupa as an easy alternative.
Cupa includes multiple cafés on it so the customer doesn't have to download an app for just one cafe. “It’s a digital membership platform developed for independent cafés,” says Ip, who also has his own independent coffee chain in Hong Kong called sensory ZERO.
Through the app, customers collect points and virtual stamps; and café owners can see the consumer behaviour. “We want to drive the revenue intelligence, to provide more visibility into the coffee shop cultures, into the consumers' behaviour.”
The launch is planned at the Coffee Exposition in Portland in March 2023; which is why Ip is here — to work with an incubator in Vancouver that’s helping him connect with people in the tech community.
Turns out, even before Ip became a coffee judge, he had used his decades of IT experience to create an app for coffee tasters — to record scores, and taste descriptions. It was adjudged the "best product" at Specialty Coffee Exposition held in Boston in 2013.
While today, Ip's life is driven by coffee and coffee-related projects, the irony is that he never fancied the drink until after he graduated from school and started working.
It was the “crazy hours” working in IT that pushed him into it, he says.
In fact, as a child, he hated the taste. “I was attracted to coffee because of the aroma. But when I got a chance to taste it, I thought, ‘Oh, it's not what I imagined.”
And now, he can’t imagine a day without it.