Meet Sierra Wen Xin Yeo, a 29-year-old multitalented coffee professional from Singapore. Sierra left a mark in so many places of the industry that it is hard to pick just a few. Well known for some of the best MC-ing on coffee events all around Europe and beyond. A charismatic Brewers Cup Champion and advocate for coffee accessibility, diversity and inclusivity not only in various projects but also in the way. she lives and inspires.
For already a year Sierra has been in a new role at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences Coffee Excellence Center – ZHAW as a Research Assistant and Program Coordinator where she makes sure coffee science is more available and digestible. Sierra has an incredible talent for making people feel seen and worthy which shined already in her early years during cafe shifts and continues to have an impact on people’s lives in all the new roles she embarks on.
Sierra, what is your first memory of coffee?
I grew up drinking traditional Singaporean kopi (a strong concentrate of torrefacto roasted robusta diluted with your choice of condensed or evaporated milk, sugar, hot water, and/or ice, heavily over-extracted in a sock filter) as I entered high school. What a mouthful, huh? A lot of caffeine-fuelled late nights studying for end-of-year exams.
Could you describe the moment or situation that made you decide to dive in and get involved in the coffee industry?
I credit this moment to an old friend of mine, Amy. At university, we were both working in a dinky deli cafe, and I was on the till while she was the snarky local barista everyone secretly crushed on. I wasn’t allowed on the machine, but one day, she had to pop to the toilet and had 30 seconds to teach me how to make a cappuccino. Thus my love affair with coffee was born. I didn’t want to come off the machine after that!
You had quite an amazing journey already through several positions in the industry. Could you tell us more about them?
Sure! It’s an eclectic journey. I worked at a variety of cafes in York, Manchester and London over the last decade. Moving through the ranks gradually from part-time barista to cafe manager, working at some of the best cafes in London, I then moved off the bar into my first corporate job at Alpro U.K. I found the plant-based coffee world surprisingly fulfilling and challenging. Plant-based options were only just growing in popularity in specialty then and it was a joy getting people to broaden their minds and palates with flavour combos.
Following 3 fulfilling years there, and 10 formative years in the United Kingdom all up, I made the decision to move to Zurich, Switzerland. It was motivated by my current job at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences Coffee Excellence Center. I’m the Research Assistant and Program Coordinator for the CAS in Coffee Excellence, a coffee science diploma for working coffee professionals.
Which skills did you have to learn to execute these roles in the industry?
Oof… I think really putting in the elbow grease in hospitality was so fundamental to the way I approached the rest of my jobs throughout my career. Learning how to be efficient with my time on the bar meant I was efficient with my time for future projects – like writing for coffee publications, channelling my passion into community events, and so on and so forth. Being ergonomic meant I always optimised my workspace, off-bar or on-bar. Ambition was also a key trait I developed over time, which drove me to constantly learn more, better myself, and develop my connections in the industry.
Finally, I think working in service helped me to find a balance between my fiercely introverted nature and my outspoken social persona. I’m confident and bubbly in public, but I can truly say it was all those hours smiling at customers, and chatting over the machine, that strengthened that ability to deliver good service even if I wasn’t feeling that way inside.
Most of the general public probably knows you from hosting lives, events and MC-ing on championships. How does it feel to be in these roles and what atmosphere and mood do you want to set while being an MC or host?
It’s such an honour! It blows my mind every time someone comes up to me and tells me they remembered me emceeing at a certain event or some such. Being on stage makes me come alive, I was a theatre kid growing up, so it’s nice to honour my childhood love for performing every time I host something. I want to make people so excited about coffee when they watch me host an event, that they’ll never see the product, or the people they make it, the same way again.
Sierra, you won the UK Brewers Cup and beautifully represented the country during WBrC in Melbourne. What motivated you to compete that year?
The truth of it was that I wanted to prove myself wrong. I wanted to prove that I could read and follow a bunch of rules and brew something nice under pressure. That, and my husband (who is a coffee competitor himself) told me that I should give competition a serious go before I decided I wasn’t any good at it.
Competing that year made me realise that a lot of what I believed about my ability to make coffee that was restrictive was, in fact, untrue at best and came from a lack of confidence, so I’m very glad I did it!
In 2022 both you and Claire Wallace represented U.K. on the World Championships. Do you think such strong female and team-oriented representation changed something in the UK championship scene? Do you see more non-male baristas getting involved or the vibe of the championships changing to be more inclusive and collaborative?
100%. I think Claire and her coach Roosa are such incredible examples of what happens when women support each other – it isn’t just the domain of men to be fiercely competitive, to be driven, to be hungry. I believe 2022 was the first year that women had won the nationals in each of their categories.
The SCA UK chapter organised a follow-up panel called ‘Bean There Done That’ after the World Championships to increase access to knowledge and resources on competition. It was an incredibly diverse and inclusive event, and you saw that reflected in the competition demographic in 2023. There were so many new, first-time competitors. I think it’s a direct result of the awesome work the UK community is doing to widen competition up to more people.
This year you actively coached competitors. Could you let us know how it felt? What is important to know and realise if you step into the shoes of a coach?
Be prepared to do a lot of cleaning up and polishing. Be prepared to have your competitors surpass you! Be prepared to have lots of late nights, to call people out on bullshit, to be called out on your own bullshit. Be prepared to be inspired by someone else’s hunger to learn and excel. Be on standby for emotional support when your competitors need it. It’s such a rewarding and fulfilling job to be invested in your team. Working together to push the boundaries of excellent coffee on the stage.
On various occasions, you put the spotlight on topics of diversity and inclusivity in coffee as well as opening accessibility to specialty coffee. Could you let us know more about the initiatives?
I used to run a feminism and equality community in coffee in London called The Kore Directive up till late 2021. Then I stepped away and subsequently moved to Zurich. Some of the events we put on were so memorable and fun and deeply meaningful to me till today. I replicate them where I can, such as on my recent trip to Kazakhstan where I gave a talk on being a woman in the coffee industry, as well as how to grow your coffee career.
My encouragement to people is – you don’t need to start a group like that to show that you are deeply invested in championing social justice. You just have to BE the change. You just have to show up. If you’re the only woman, the only queer person, the only ethnic minority in your immediate environment, you just have to show up and be there. It doesn’t need to be overt or performative. Just be there. And for allies, just support people who turn up as their most authentic selves.
The quote that sticks with me about social activism is one from Mr. David Feige of the Bronx Freedom Fund: ‘We are realising the dream of our own irrelevance.’ I’d love a day to come when diversity, equity and inclusivity are the default. So much so that we don’t need such initiatives any longer.
Accessibility to coffee science is also a big and important topic. Could you let us how your current role helps you in educating and making the science available?
Sure. I run the CAS in Coffee Excellence Program at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences Coffee Excellence Center. The program is a part-time distance diploma, which is perfect for working coffee professionals who are keen on augmenting their industry skills with scientific knowledge that grounds the process of making coffee. I am also in charge of the marketing and social media at the Center, which gives me direct input into the way our work is perceived and accessed.
Some of the work we do can seem quite esoteric, and it’s really about being able to explain it in explainable terms to the layman. For example, our Seed to Sip informative series on Instagram takes content from our actual modules and breaks it down into bite-sized terms for the public.
Listening to your life makes me feel like it could be lived by several people and would already be wholesome! What keeps you going and motivates you every day to keep rocking?
The idea that I can only ever do my best. Also, that less people care about me or what I do (in a good way) than I think they do. It frees me to go and live my life and do what I do.