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The Brawny Barista - Leo Li

Author: Leo Li

Editor: Kelvin & Jack


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The past… who doesn’t have a past?

When did we start to become who we are today?

The past might be filled with some painful memories,

but looking back can also stir up some warm feelings.

We might find ourselves asking, 

“If I had made some different choices,

who would I be today?”

The past is filled with the “unknown”, even if all this has already happened,

but life is filled with “unknowns”, and that is different from ignorance.

The unknown is simply knowledge that we have yet to acquire, and does not mean we have given up and deferred to remaining ignorant.

Leo Li (Li Jinlong) is a sterling example of how the “unknowns” in life can become “known”.  We can all learn something from his story and journey in coffee.

I felt a bit weird when our editor asked me to write about myself—I always thought of myself as a pretty boring guy.  Besides working out and making coffee, there isn’t much else I love to do.  The past few years, I’ve been looking forward, but I never really took a moment to look back.  But when I do look back, I feel that I’ve actually grown a lot, and much of that is thanks to my experiences in coffee.

 100kg Civil Engineer

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I felt a bit weird when our editor asked me to write about myself—I always thought of myself as a pretty boring guy.  Besides working out and making coffee, there isn’t much else I love to do.  

The past few years, I’ve been looking forward, but I never really took a moment to look back.  But when I do look back, I feel that I’ve actually grown a lot, and much of that is thanks to my experiences in coffee.

As a civil engineering boy, how did I step on this specialty coffee journey?

My family is quite traditional.  My father is a soldier, he served in the army from when he was teenager until he retired.  

As far back as I can remember, my upbringing was very strict.  I will always remember the words he said to me: “I support anything you do, but whatever you do, you must really do it well.”  This had a deep impact on me.

Before coffee, I only had one other job.  After graduating from university, I worked at an engineering design company.  Other people might think this was a great opportunity, but I was sitting in front of a computer working on designs nonstop, from 9 to 5 every day, only eating and drinking.  

My mind and body felt completely unhealthy.

I would imagine myself in this kind of environment after 10 years, sitting idly every day in the same seat, facing a computer screen.  After just one year at this company, I had gone from 70kg to 100kg!  

This scared me so much, and I worried a lot about what would become of me in the future.

After that one year, I quit my job without any hesitation, seeking to start a new life in pursuit of my passions, and first finding out what those passions were.

A Simple Wish—Torch Apron

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Before joining Torch, I had no idea what “Pu’er” was—to me, Pu’er was just a type of tea, but I didn’t realize that it was also the name of a place.

My journey into coffee happened step by step.  Every time I would leave home, I would make a last minute decision, and sometimes I would choose to join an event at the last minute, and these last minute decisions made me the person I am today.

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Before I came to Torch to study coffee, I would often go to different cities to visit the local cafes, to experience and enjoy the different coffee clubs.  

It was through these experiences that I was able to meet all those people whose paths had crossed all because of their common love for coffee, and along the way I made many close friends.

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Eventually, these experiences instilled in me a greater purpose, and through the countless recommendations from my coffee friends, I would seek out the best coffee in each new place I visited.  

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I first encountered Torch at Shanghai HotelEx, and noticed the “all star” barista aprons they were wearing.  I thought to myself, “Wow, this is really cool!”  I hoped that I too could wear this Torch's apron.  (Actually, this simple wish has already come true!)

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With my friends’ recommendation, I decided to take a Q Grader course at coffee origin, Pu’er.  In this unknown place, I made all different kinds of friends, and studying at Torch opened a new window of possibilities for me, and I’ve come to know a different kind of specialty coffee.

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The coffee here is awesome, and the people are great, and I can’t even find the words to describe the place itself!  This is the perfect place to learn about each step of the value chain, and there are so many chances to improve myself.  All of this has strengthened my resolve to grow myself in this “unknown” place.

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After finishing up my Q Grader course, I went back to my hometown for about half a month before packing my bags and coming back to Torch.

Starting With Unknown, Stepping On a Unknown Journey

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I learned so much during my time as a “Mountain Man”.  I started with nothing—everything I learned was done by fumbling about and finding my way.

From preparing the drying beds to processing the cherries, nothing about this process was easy or simple, but it was all worthwhile.  

After becoming a “Mountain Man”, I thought about going back home and continue along my new path in coffee, or stay here in the “unknown” and explore more.

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I chose the latter, and that was when my real journey in coffee began, it began with the “unknown”.  I believe that growing can happen through experiencing the unknown, and in reality, this was how I actually grew.  

The unknown can make one feel lost, but each and every thing you will change the person you become—to me, this is so cool!

After the “Mountain Man” project, I thought about what I should do next.  My journey in coffee started from the end of the coffee chain—Barista.  

I’ve done roasting, I’ve done training, I’ve processed coffee cherries as a “Mountain Man”.  I felt this was a relatively small loop, so why not start from the end?

The more you learn, the more you realize how little you really know, and coffee is no exception.  From feeling like I was pretty good, to feeling like I knew nothing at all, I enjoyed every moment of learning.  

This feeling drove me to learn even more.  The world of coffee is a bottomless well of knowledge—each time you feel as though you’re close to the truth, another new question will appear, waiting for an answer.

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I enjoy the time I work as a barista.  At Torch, you can meet different friends from all over the world.  I learn more and more from my interactions with all these new friends.

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People close to me know how much I enjoy chatting with customers, and I am always excited to share what little coffee knowledge I have with them—once I start talking about coffee, it’s hard for me to stop!  

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The more I share, the more I learn, and I hope the customers will enjoy this, and gain a deeper appreciation for coffee.  It doesn’t matter if the customer is a seasoned coffee professional, or totally new to coffee, I enjoy talking with everyone.

Why Coffee?

My 100kg's selfie

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(I can't find my 100kg photo, so here's a photoshop version of me in 100kg)

You might say that I joined the coffee industry by accident.  When I first quit my job, I felt lost for a time, and found myself asking what I should do next?  At 100kg, what kinds of jobs could I do?

(By the way, the editor wants to remind everyone, there are many things one can do at 100kg—but always remember that your health is most important.)

I remember an advertisement from Thailand at that time: “Only You Can Change Yourself”.  This was exactly how I was feeling.

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The ad told the story about a girl from the countryside who was overweight and was always ridiculed by others.  But she didn’t know how to lose weight. 

One day, she came across an old lady who told her about a dry well, and if she could fill up that well with water, a fairy would make her wish come true.

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The girl carried water into the well, day after day, day after day.  After some time, she had filled up the well, but no fairy appeared.  

She found the old lady and started to complain, but the old lady showed the girl her reflection in a mirror, and the girl realized that her wish had already come true.

She realized then that it was not a fairy who had made her wish come true, but the results of her hard work and determination.

I truly believe that through our own effort we can change ourselves.  I spent three months working hard to drop my weight from 100kg to 60kg.  

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Every day, I would go for a run and eat less food (which I do not recommended for everyone, due to possible health issues).  I told myself that I could lose weight, I could do anything, if I dedicated myself to that goal.

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My journey into coffee was very strange—before making coffee, I could not even drink a cup of instant coffee.  I accidentally went into a cafe and had a cup of bitter coffee, and suddenly I was working in the coffee industry.

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Like many of you, I started by serving drinks and washing dishes.  Our manager never allowed new employees to use the coffee machine, except for the steam wand.  That shop sold a lot of milk coffees.

I was eager to use the espresso machine, so I would often search all kinds of videos online and teach myself how to pour latte art. 

I would ask my coworkers all the time for tips on how to make beautiful and interesting designs with the milk in coffee.  (At that time, I barely knew the difference between a latte and cappuccino!)

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At that cafe, our boss wouldn’t allow us to use milk to practice steaming either, so I would use soy sauce in place of espresso, and soap in place of milk to practice the motions.  Although it wouldn’t mix very well, it was much cheaper than the real thing!

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At the time, I wasn’t really interested in coffee, I was more focused on quickly gaining the skills needed to use the espresso machine, and make some beautiful milk coffees.  

Even know, when I see soap, my mind will jump back to those memories.

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Afterwards, I learned about single origin coffees, and that really piqued my interest.  I began to invest in all kinds of books, studying all different brewing methods to learn more about it. 

Of course, the most direct way of master it, is keep drinking it!

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During that time, we can never waste a single cup of single origin coffees, we are required to finish up the coffees that we brew. 

We drink single origin coffees almost everyday, by the time the shop closed we all like a drunktards. 

I used to suffer from insomnia with just a cup of coffees untill now, regardless how many cups I drink, it won't affect my good quality of sleep. 

I think I am a good coffee drinker were trained during that time. My resources to access specialty coffee are limited, I can only learn more through books and some source from the Internet. 

My cupboard are filled with specialty coffee related books. I have view almost all the video shared in the Internet. 

I would like to say thank you to my past, the one who give it all out to chase after your goal!

My view on competition

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I was not really interested in competitions for a long, long time.  I think competitions are for kids, and really a waste of money.

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Most contestants don’t focus on the coffee itself, and I think this is missing the real point of making coffee.

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i joined this year’s World Coffee Cupping Competition (China Region) and even reached the finals.  I felt some regret, but this regret is a reminder for me to improve myself.  

Regardless of whether I am cupping, brewing, or testing my skill as a barista, my goal is always to meet more coffee professionals and learn more about myself.

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China's specialty coffee market is getting better, which complement and helps promote more coffee competiiton. 

Younger competitors who are passionate in competing are increasing. I am really enjoy being part of it. 

However, I think you shouldn't rush to hop on the competition bandwagon , when you are yet to understand your friend (coffee bean) well enough. 

Let's get to know how a coffee evolve from a coffee cherry to coffee bean. Head on to the origin and experience yourself how they processed the coffee. 

I will guarantee you that, once you immerse yourself to know more about your friend, it will be a totally whole new experience for your next competition. 

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So, what are you waiting for Mountain Man 2018/2019! We are waiting for you in Yunnan this year!

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I think I am a relatively simple person with a simple life.  I love coffee and love going to the gym.  A healthy body has empowered me physically; coffee has enriched my mind and heart.

Working out has made my body more healthy, and I love that.

Working with coffee has made my mind more healthy, and I love that, too.

What would you be if everyone were to stop drinking coffee? 

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That could never happen.  If there was really such a day, then I would be Coffee Man—the hero who brings coffee to everyone!  But that day could never come either!  Hahaha!

What do you like to during your leisure time?

Working out, sleeping and making coffee.

Now I am not only a barista, but also a SCI trainer. I love my job.

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If coffee was a bottomless pit, I would love to fall forever…

Finally the article is over!!! Although Leo is good at making coffee, this article made me get into coffee more “deeper” (until late night I still not finishing editing) . 

There were too many punctuation issues that made me so confused with what is Leo trying to conveyed.……

So what is the definition of “ Past” for you? It is a sense of relief? Just like how I finish editing Leo's article? hahahahaha... Jokes aside. 

Past……for me is paying gratitude to the past. 

For me, I would like to say thank you to the seventeen years old me.

Thank you for being bold in breaking the vicious cycle;

Thank you for chasing after what you wanted in life;

Thank you for your hard work; Thank you for being kind. 

Journey maketh man. 

What we went through in every stage of life is a platform for us to grow and become better. We chase over betterment in life, but one should never forget what have past. It's the journey you travel that make you who you are now.