DUBAI // Raja Muthusamy beams as he receives a certificate stating that he is the UAE's best barista, according to judges at the UAE Barista Championship.
"When I came in third last year, I was very sad," he said. "I worked since then to win today."
He has certainly come a long way to get to where he is.
Originally from a village of 250 people called Palimisai in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, he moved to the UAE seven years ago to work. His first job was as a dishwasher.
"He was too good to leave as a dishwasher, so he eventually became a waiter, and then he became a head waiter, and then when we closed the cafe and started this coffee business, I was able to bring Raja along," said Kim Thompson, the owner of The Raw Coffee Company, where Mr Muthusamy now works as a coffee roaster and barista trainer.
When his name was called, Mr Muthusamy was elated. "It's like I made a big achievement in my lifetime," he said. "All the hard work was worth it. I am looking forward to going to Colombia [for the world championship]. I want to see where the coffee is from."
Mr Muthusamy used Chiapas coffee, from Mexico. "This coffee is grown at 1,400 metres by a small co-operative, which supports 8,000 family members," he explained to the judges.
"I roasted this coffee myself. I started to roast slowly, so that the beans would not dry out. I took it to the end of the start of the second crack." The second crack is the stage at which coffee becomes a dark roast. "That enhances the almond flavour that I wanted." The judges, normally taciturn, smiled and nodded at his description.
Mr Muthusamy's knowledge of coffee is impressive considering he began learning about it only three years ago. "I think Raja is the strongest technical barista at this competition, and I think the other competitors would say the same thing," said Matt Toogood, the director of The Raw Coffee Company.
The finals of the UAE Barista Championship were conducted much the same way as the rest of the competition. Each competitor was given 15 minutes to brew an espresso, a cappuccino and a signature drink for the judges.
Mr Muthusamy's signature concoction of espresso, almond milk, and jaggery (palm sugar) was a labour of love. It was designed to complement the almond flavours and acidity of the bean from Chiapas. Even the equipment he used was especially designed to extract the nuances of the bean's flavours.
The coffee maker, called a coffee siphon, was invented by the Japanese and employs principles of vacuum. A hermetically sealed glass chamber at the bottom holds the water. When heated, the air in the chamber expands, forcing the water up through a filter, where it mixes with the coffee grounds. After about 45 seconds of stirring the heat is turned off, the air cools and the resulting vacuum sucks the coffee back through the filter.
"I have been working in this industry for three years," said Mr Muthusamy. "Everyone says you are always learning when you are working with coffee. I find that this is very true."