Our Barista Champions: Sam Low 2016

As we move towards 2024 and the return of regional barista events we want to acknowledge and celebrate the past and the people that were part of the journey in New Zealand. We asked our past champions about their journey in coffee competitions in NZ to help inspire the competitive baristas and coffee community of 2024.

Where and when did you start in coffee? I was first introduced to coffee at my catering and hospitality classes in high school, competing in the Auckland secondary school barista competitions. Eventually, the curiosity of coffee led me into the Specialty Coffee scene working at Atomic Coffee as a junior barista at the age of 20 in 2012.

When did you first start to compete? I started competing in the official NZSCA coffee championships in 2012, starting with latte art where I placed 3rd that year, and the barista champs in 2013 placing 10th.

What did you learn along the way? The main thing was the sense of community and the collective passion coffee has. Knowing this meant I was a part of something bigger than myself, growing my network of opportunities and friendships, which in turn inspired me to improve and better myself with small coffee goals each day, like perfecting the tulip on my latte art or being able to pinpoint flavour notes of a washed Yirgacheffe, Ethiopian coffee.

What was your motivation, what did you want to achieve? The motivation was mainly just trying to understand how complex coffee is. I wanted to know more, discover something I had grown such an affinity for, the best and worst part of diving deep into the world of Specialty Coffee was that, the more I understood coffee the less I felt like I knew coffee, a rabbit hole of knowledge and curiosity. The main goals I wanted to achieve at the time was self-improvement, and to do better than I did in previous years.

Most memorable experience as a champion, what did you get out of it? Apart from being able to compete on a global scale, traveling the globe, creating those networks and opportunities, I would say being able to develop a larger sense of flavour on a universal understanding. I was able to communicate with other artisans with a similar language of flavour eg. tea masters, sommeliers, chefs, etc. which in turn helped me develop a larger understanding of the food/beverage world.

Who helped you along the way? I have so many mentors, supporters, and indirect coffee role models (watching barista champions online, reading their work, etc) inspiring and believing in me.
Masako Yamamoto was my first ever specialty coffee coach, my catering hospitality high school teacher Mrs Fiore who basically let me touch a coffee machine for the first time, Donna Hutchinson my cafe manager who really supported my late-night practices in the cafe those early years, the team at Code Black Coffee in Melbourne who really pushed my coffee abilities to the next level with their wealth of knowledge, passion and support.

Where are you now? I am now the current winner of MasterChef New Zealand 2022, freelance creative in food media, cookbook author, content creator, and brand ambassador specializing in food & flavour, currently based in Auckland (previously Melbourne and Vancouver).

Credit: Vanessa Wu from Sam’s ‘Modern Chinese’ Cookbook