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[Herald Interview] For Korea's first world barista champion, failure was path to success

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : Feb. 12, 2023 - 01:27

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Barista Jeon Joo-yeon Barista Jeon Joo-yeon
Jeon Joo-yeon’s path to becoming the first South Korean to win the World Barista Championship is a typical “passion leads to success” story.

In 2008, then a social welfare major at a local college, she started a part-time job at a big coffee shop in her hometown of Busan. At first, she did not even touch coffee cups. She was part of the shop’s online sales team.

Slowly but naturally, she gravitated toward making coffee. In 2009, she made up her mind to become a barista.

“My parents, professor and friends were all concerned that I was choosing the wrong path,” Jeon, now 36 and co-head of Momos Coffee said.

“Even now, Korean society has this bias of seeing barista as more of a part-time job than an actual profession.”

From very early on in her barista career, she had been smitten with the WBC and the way competitors “performed” on stage for the title.

“The barista basically looked like Michael Jackson to me. The stage was big, but the performance felt even bigger, enough to engulf the entire stage,” she said, recalling the first time she saw a video of the competition.

Her first attempt at the grand stage was in 2009. That year she failed to win the chance to represent Korea at the WBC.

Winning the domestic competition -- Korea National Barista Championship -- was not easy, but it was achievable in the end. But when it came to the international round, she felt there was “an insurmountable wall” standing before her.

“I was drained, so I took a step back and applied to become a WBC judge for the 2016 competition. That was a game changer for me.”

Her new role as a judge made her see the errors of her past ways and helped her gain a fresh perspective on how to perform.

After seven tries to become the international winner, her eighth time was the charm.

At the 2019 WBC finals held in Boston, all finalists were required to give a 15-minute presentation in English to the judges on the 12 different cups of coffee they made.

Despite the language barrier, Jeon was lauded for what commentators called a “trendy and scientific approach,” and became the first Korean and only second woman to win in the competition’s some 20 years of history.

Four years later, Jeon is now co-head of Momos Coffee, where she started her coffee career.

“In the beginning, I just wanted a job that could help me grow and make me happy. Now, I realize coffee is much more than that,” Jeon said.