The Sam Low down

Former New Zealand Barista and Latte Art Champion Sam Low is on a journey to learn everything he can about hospitality.
Sam Low

Sam Low says his two passions, specialty coffee and Chinese gastronomy, share more in common than is immediately obvious.

“[Gastronomy] is one of those topics you jump into, and the more you try to understand it, the less you understand,” Sam says.

Trends Sam says are gaining momentum in the coffee and food industries are traceability, and the flavour of terroir.

“The trendiest restaurants at the moment are the ones showcasing products that are truly from single origins and expressing that flavour, not masking it,” he says.

“It’s about respecting producers, and one of our main focuses as coffee professionals is to transfer information from producing countries to consumers.”

Sam’s interest in hospitality began during his final year of high school when he took a practical class that saw him working at an Auckland seafood school.

“I became an assistant chef there. That helped me get into cooking and made me familiar with a wider range of ingredients,” Sam says.

After high school, Sam applied for a food and beverage apprenticeship at Skycity, which he calls Auckland’s equivalent to Melbourne’s Crown Casino.

“It’s a casino with lots of different restaurants and establishments attached. The apprenticeship gave me the opportunity to dabble in different venues,” Sam says.

“When I completed the two-and-a-half-year apprenticeship, in my head I was thinking, ‘there is access to so many professionals – sommeliers, managers, and amazing chefs – but no-one really knows anything about coffee’. I grew this desire, mostly out of curiosity, to learn more about coffee.” 

In 2012, Sam found a job as a Junior Barista at Atomic Coffee Roasters in Auckland. From there, he progressed into a Head Barista role.

“[Atomic Coffee Roasters] was very supportive of competitions. They paid for my ticket and told me I was competing in the national latte art competitions,” Sam says.

Sam placed third in the 2012 New Zealand Latte Art Championship, his first competition.

“I had no idea what I was doing. I did all I could do at that point, which was a six-tiered tulip,” Sam says. “But it sparked this competition bug.”

The following year, Sam again entered in the NZ Latte Art Championship. This time he won. He also entered the NZ Barista Championship and placed 10th.

“I think latte art was one of those tools that helped me gain respect within the industry because it showed my dedication,” Sam says. 

After making the finals at the 2013 World Latte Art Championship in France, Sam grew a burning desire to open his own place. That desire manifested itself as Bump Coffee Brewers in 2014.

“I found a space that used to be a storage area for an old Cantonese restaurant that was redeveloped. I asked the landlord if I could use it to open a coffee shop,” Sam says.

“At the time, there were no real hole-in-the-wall coffee shops in New Zealand and I had nothing to lose.”

Sam has travelled to Vancouver to learn more about the hospitality industry in other countries.

Despite Bump’s success, Sam soon grew restless and returned to Atomic Coffee Roasters, this time in the role of a Coffee Specialist. He even decided to dabble in competitions again.

In 2015, Sam won the New Zealand Latte Art Championship and this time placed second in the New Zealand Barista Championship.

“After that, I decided I wanted to pursue more coffee knowledge rather than continue to focus on latte art,” Sam says. “The most progressive city in terms of specialty coffee is Melbourne, so I hit up Code Black Coffee in 2016 and got a job there as Head Trainer.”

Code Black sent Sam back to New Zealand to compete in the 2016 New Zealand Barista Championship so he could represent his home country and Code Black. On his third attempt, Sam finally won.

Sam thanks Australian cleaning company Cafetto for assisting him throughout his competition journey.

“Cafetto has been super supportive throughout all the competitions. They’re nice people and service is always great,” Sam says. “Cafetto is the only cleaning product I use. I would never even say ‘espresso cleaner’ – it’s always just ‘Cafetto.’”

Learn about more baristas Cafetto supports:

Sam says while the Latte Art Championships gained him respect in the industry, the Barista Championships helped him grow as a person.

“Latte art is the easier thing to get into. It’s more structured,” he says. “You learn the fundamentals, the science and physics of steaming and pouring milk, and you develop that with different techniques. Then you present something that is easily appreciated by people even outside the industry.

“Barista Championships [on the other hand] are emotionally challenging. It really takes a lot out of you. It forces you into uncomfortable situations where you have to present in front of people, and learn how to communicate with people using a particular language.”

Sam says barista competitions have taught him how to talk about palate and flavour, skills that translate to other areas of hospitality.

“Whenever you talk to a fellow hospitality professional – whether it’s a chef, sommelier, cheesemaker, or craft brewer – you still use the flavour lexicon,” he says. “They might use different words to define flavours but it is still very intertwined with most realms of hospitality.”

Sam explored his hospitality interests outside coffee further in 2017, when he launched his pop-up Chinese restaurant concept Da Lin, operating out of Code Black after hours. Soon after, Sam returned to Auckland where he continued his night-time pop-up alongside an Operations Co-ordinator role at Mojo Coffee in Auckland.

“At the time, I didn’t want to focus on coffee as a product per se, so instead I took a behind-the-scenes role,” Sam says.

After a year and a half with Mojo Coffee, Sam decided to travel to Vancouver, Canada, in what he calls his own “eat, pray, love” moment.

“From a young age, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of Canada,” Sam says. “The main reason I came over here was to understand the food culture and hospitality scene.

“I’ve been here for three weeks and learnt a lot so far, like how peoples’ mentality and pallate develop due to their influences from surrounding cities and upbringing.”

Sam says specialty coffee is still a relatively young concept to Vancouver, with much of the coffee industry clinging to traditional mindsets due to consumer demands.

This article appears in full in the December edition of BeanScene.To read the story in FULL, subscribe now.

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