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Sip ‘n’ Slurp: A Guide to Expert Coffee Tasting – A Q&A with Specialty Coffee Champion Freda Yuan

Good things take time. In the case of Freda Yuan’s recent book, ‘Sip ‘n’ Slurp: A Guide to Expert Coffee Tasting’, today more than ever it seems it pays to be persistent in order to overcome challenges and do work that matters.

I remember first meeting Freda in 2017 for World of Coffee in Budapest, Hungary. I was interested in watching the world cup tasting competitors because I understood how vital the sensory aspect of coffee is for the industry. Unbeknown to me when I sat down to find a good view of the stage was that the person to eventually take the bronze medal would be sitting next to me.

Speaking to Freda Yuan more recently for this article it is clear that she is as committed to her work today as she was when I first met her. She is currently head of coffee at Origin Coffee Roasters in the UK and a member of the Coffee Roasters Guild leadership council.  You can visit her website here.

Freda Yuan evaluating coffee samples. Photo: Longlong Han

Matthew Deyn: How did it feel seeing the book released?

Freda Yuan: ‘It was weird when I first received it. I finished the book quite a long time ago. It was in 2018 when I actually finished it. It took me three years to get to this point today. When I received it, I was like ‘Oh my god this is a real physical book that I can probably give to my parents.’

M: Did you feel like it had been building up for a while or that you would come back to it? Did you plan from the beginning to have the book?

F: ‘So I finished it but it was on my G drive for so long after trying to find the right publisher didn’t work and so I just forgot about it. During the early stages of the pandemic, I got really upset in relation to being on furlough for two and a half months and feeling like my life wasn’t progressing.

I started to have a conversation with my cousin who is in Taiwan and a senior high school teacher. She is very good at encouraging people. She said, ‘Why don’t you write a book about yourself? Your background, how you ended up being in London and your life path in relation to depression.’ And that’s when I started thinking ok, maybe I should redo this again and if I can’t find anyone to publish a physical copy maybe I’ll just do it online.

So that was my intention. First to offer free copies to everyone so that’s what I did for my website. But then Sprudge picked it up. Zac, who is the journalist there, mentioned to me, ‘Actually, this can be good.’ and that’s when I started to brainstorm about other possibilities for publishing. Eventually, I found other people like the designer who was a freelancer from a platform and someone I hadn’t met before.’

Sip ‘n’ Slurp: A Guide to Expert Coffee Tasting by Freda Yuan
Sip ‘n’ Slurp: A Guide to Expert Coffee Tasting by Freda Yuan. Photo: Kryštof Susa.

M: Did it help having full control over things in terms of the finished product?

F: ‘The photographer asked me a crucial question: ‘What style do you want to go for with the book?’ Eventually I realised it’s good that I have a direction with where I want to go so I kept using that as my benchmark and reference whilst moving forwards.’

M: What would you say to someone who aspires to write about coffee or have a book?

F: ‘The reason I really wanted to do it is because there was no such book for the market. I think we can always write whatever we want for sure. But how about really looking into what your unique selling point is? Figure out the best topic and content that you can offer and make the best out of it. We need to be honest, understand what we can offer and then bring the best out of ourselves.’    

M: When did you first know you wanted to specialise in the sensory side of coffee?

F: ‘I’ve always enjoyed it. I enjoy being geeky about tasting. I remember at that time I was a student working as a barista for Taylor Street under a two year working holiday visa then a student visa. I needed to look at my options because I wanted to stay in the UK. I was having trouble finding sponsorship and that was when I began questioning myself. Am I good enough? Can I find a job? I looked down on myself for a while until the UK cup tasters competition. I didn’t have enough confidence for the competition because I just wanted to test it out and eventually when I won it I was like, ‘What happened!?’

After I started to pay more attention to it I realised that it was really my passion. Combined with working through the recovery for my depression and bulimia, it helped me to really enjoy living in the moment. That’s when I realised it’s not just about tasting, it’s about how we really experience life.

M: If you could only have one sense which one would it be?

F: ‘I think understanding myself personally, I am a very touchy person. So for me, it would be my sense of touch. I feel like I experience more when I touch things.’

M: What word describes how you felt after placing third in the World Cup Tasting Championships?

F: ‘This is a really hard question because I think my word is: ‘I wish I could have been first. It’s interesting. It’s because of my background, you know, being Asian. My parents always want me to be number one and so I was disappointed. The first thing my mom said to me after the competition when I received a text was, ‘You could have double checked, you know.’

M: As someone who I’m sure is inspiring to many in coffee, let’s flip things around. Who or what inspires Freda Yuan?

F: ‘Annette Moldvaer, one of the founders of Squaremile. I think I really like her because she’s very quiet. She does things and she doesn’t shout, ‘Oh I’ve done this, I’ve done that’ which I really admire because there’s so much great work that she has done.’ 

M: What was it like getting through difficulties related to mental health? Does it add to your sense of fulfillment?

F: ‘I had difficulties and negative experiences. The more I dug into it, the more I started to read books and forgive what had happened more. If I was Freda in 2015 or 2014 when I was writing the book, I probably wouldn’t think I could do it. But when I was making the book happen I knew I could do it, even though the path was a bit blurry. It’s cloudy when you don’t see the future. But you know you can do it. And I found this to be a really interesting process that helped me to have more confidence with everything I do and that gives me more drive to move forward. It’s a big transition in my personal life, but also in my career.’

Matthew Deyn reading the Sip ‘n’ Slurp book. Photo: Kryštof Susa.

From first glance Sip ‘n’ Slurp gives the impression of being the ideal, unassuming and useful coffee tasters guide with a minimal but thoughtful approach to it’s design. I like how the book goes into good theoretical detail concerning sensory awareness, the five senses and the five basic tastes but also gives the reader practical guidance about how they can carry out various tasting exercises towards the end.

Whether you are a seasoned coffee veteran or new to what the world of specialty coffee can offer, the book is a great starting point for those who wish to gain a deeper insight into how a more mindful approach to sensory in coffee can help us to enjoy the many aspects that it relates to.