Lee Hee Wei is an engineer who took a leap of faith to exit his profession and turn his passion for coffee into a successful cafe business. He recently won the National Barista Championship 2022 after many tries. The barista tells us how he has seen God at every step of this adventure.
They say that a champion is not one who never fails, but one who never quits. City Harvest Church member Lee Hee Wei, 40, who came in tops at the recent Singapore National Barista Championship 2022, fits this description perfectly. He has come a long, long way from being a coffee lover to a champion barista and café owner.
The Singapore National Barista Championship 2022 tests a barista’s professionalism, skills and knowledge of coffee. Every year, talented coffee connoisseurs across the island come together to showcase their talents and compete for the coveted title of National Champion and the opportunity to represent Singapore at the Annual World Barista Championship.
“We each have to do a 15-minute presentation to four sensory and technical judges, who judge us on our skills. We have to describe to them the coffee and the sensory experience, and they award us points according to how accurate our description is,” Hee Wei explains.
The baristas are also evaluated on other areas like their performance and the concept of the coffee that they create. “This year, what the judges were looking for was actually whether the ingredient that you put in (the coffee) has synergy with the coffee (beans) that you’re using,” he says.
What made Hee Wei’s coffee creation stand out was that he had used a special fermented coffee from Ecuador which is processed anaerobically. This means that the beans are fermented in an environment that lacks oxygen.
Hee Wei wanted his signature drink to highlight the way the coffee beans are processed. “So, we started to look for ingredients that also use anaerobic processing, and the thing that came to us was water kefir,” he reveals. He experimented with making water kefir with many different types of fruits before hitting the jackpot. In the end, he went with water kefir fermented with starfruit and pineapple which enhanced the taste of the coffee.
He also did a fruit maturation with green grapes to extract the grape juice to use as a sweetener for the coffee. Finally, he recycled some of the fermented fruits from the water kefir and turned them into a cold brew tea. “When we add that into the espresso, it becomes like an iced black or a long black. It dilutes the espresso and opens it up to more flavours,” the barista elaborates.
Interestingly, this addition to the coffee changes the tasting notes of the coffee. “It actually tastes very hoppy—like you’re drinking an IPA beer,” he says. “It’s surprising because you don’t usually taste hop in coffee, but you will with this one.”
That stroke of genius won him the title of the National Barista Champion 2022.
NEVER GIVING UP
Hee Wei is a civil engineer by training. He has participated in the SNBC a number of times since 2012 and was placed third in the SNBC in 2013. His next few attempts were not as successful though. “Every time we failed, God was trying to show us that He doesn’t want us to get it so easily as we did in 2013,” he notes.
“That journey wasn’t easy, to be honest. We did struggle a bit, having come from being in the top three. The worst setback was in 2019 when we didn’t make it to the finals at all.”
But Hee Wei never gave up. He saw that God was preparing them and pushing them to learn more and become more professional as a barista. “We thank God for the pandemic years actually. The two-year gap actually propelled us to broaden our knowledge a lot.”
Hee Wei’s spirit of not giving up was put to the test in his engineering career. After being in the construction industry for a good decade, the industry began to destabilise, resulting in retrenchment islandwide. In 2016, he was given an option to take a severance package and join another industry.
At the same period of time, an opportunity came up to venture across to Johor Bahru, Malaysia to start a café with a friend. Hee Wei expressed that it was God who planned out such an opportunity during a period of uncertainty. It was also his first time stepping out of his comfort zone to boldly pursue something he had never done. “I love coffee, but I didn’t know the first thing about running a coffee business,” he admits.
After many prayers, Hee Wei felt the timing was right and he took the step and opened the café with his business partner. Things went well for the duo, and they managed to turn a profit in a short amount of time.
In 2018, two years after they started the business, Hee Wei reached another turning point: his daughter Chloe was about to enter Primary One. He had to make the tough choice to return to Singapore and leave the business to his partner. At that time, Hee Wei’s wife Eve was running a small mobile coffee business that they had started in 2011. Olla Specialty Coffee serves up quality brews at private events and exhibitions. However, the income from that business was not as stable as his café in JB.
Eventually, the café in JB closed down due to a leasing issue, and Hee Wei’s source of income was gone. “That was one of our lowest points,” he recalls. He started questioning himself as to whether he had done the right thing.
“It made me realise from being able to tithe generously, I was tithing like a teenager who works at a part-time job,” he says. Hee Wei had to sell off his car at a huge loss and the family stopped eating out. The only luxury they enjoyed the next six months was taking a Grab ride home after church service, because his young children would be tired by then.
It was the most challenging time to trust in the Lord. The only thing that kept Hee Wei going was the reminder he gave himself daily: to keep the faith despite the situation. In moments of self-doubt, he remembered what his pastor Lin Junxian taught him. “He would always say, ‘How deep is your foundation? If you have a good foundation, your faith will keep you moving even when you doubt yourself. Your house will not just crumble,’” he shares.
WALKING IN GOD’S TIMING
After six months, God did a miracle and gave Hee Wei an opportunity to lease a small space at Singtel’s building in Somerset to set up a coffee bar in the main lobby. That coffee bar eventually propelled him to lease half a shop at Sunset Way to open a café in 2019.
The name of their shop “Olla” means “vessel”—Hee Wei and Eve see themselves as vessels that serve the community. God, however, made it into a vessel that carried them through the Covid pandemic. “It was our Noah’s Ark truly, because when the pandemic hit and Singtel building had to be shut down, we still had our one tiny shop sustaining all our staff,” Hee Wei remembers.
Looking back, he realises that God’s timing has always been impeccable. “If we did not have our coffee bar at the office building, we would have never been able to afford our small space here at Sunset Way; and when the pandemic hit, it was the small shop that sustained us through that time.”
In the midst of all the challenges Hee Wei and Eve were facing, they continued to serve in the house of God. Both of them are part of City Harvest’s Barista ministry, which, up till Covid arrived, operated a coffee station before and after weekend church services.
“Every Saturday, we would work half a day in the café and head to church. Our children would take the bus provided by HarvestKidz to church and wait for us in church after their service ends. We would have lunch together then start our ministry time while they head off to HarvestKidz again,” Hee Wei shares. “Saturdays were always spent in that manner during pre-Covid days.”
How did a civil engineer know what it takes to build a business from scratch? Hee Wei explains that it was his experience as an engineer all those years that helped him with his operations—through his job, he had built important capabilities like analytical skills, data management and understanding statistics.
When it comes to Olla Café’s operations, Hee Wei calculates the busiest timings and determines the deployment and spending on each staffer. Such data helps him conduct proper team planning. When it comes to coffee making, yield, shots and the weight of beans are all accounted for in an effort to maintain consistency.
Despite his diligence, work is not Hee Wei’s priority. While his café operates seven days a week, the couple does not work every day—God has given him a reliable team to whom he can entrust the business. Every day, husband and wife leave the café at around 2pm to meet the children at home after school, so that the family can spend the rest of the day together.
“We have to know where to draw the line, when to say no,” he says. “If there are not enough staffers working, we will just close for the day. There is no point earning so much and tiring ourselves out and forgetting what’s more important at the end.”