Caleb Cha is best known for his victory during 2015 World Latte Art Championship, as well as his Instagram following. But what cannot be seen from his prizes or his Instagram is the impression he gives. If you have ever been to All-Starts events or coffee events where Caleb is one of the guests, you would never miss: smiling and being extremely warm and friendly to people around him, he is the life and soul of the party.
Originally from South Korea, growing up he had many dreams of what to become like painter, writer, martial arts fighter, soldier etc. Starting from 6 years old, Caleb trained martial arts and became so strong that he participated in arm-wrestling competitions in school. At the same time, he has always enjoyed drawing, some of his art works were selected for a graduate exhibition in his high school. Being an artsy child, Caleb also enjoyed writing and he even presented some of his writing to an audience in the university.
With all this experience, Caleb majored in Kinesiology because he wanted to study more about the mechanics of body movements. And he might use this knowledge in the best place possible: in the army. Military service in South Korea is mandatory, so Caleb enrolled to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). After 2 years he I transferred the Marine Corps (ROKMC) where he was a platoon leader for another 2 years. “I really loved military life and battle as a special force because it was so strategic and cooperative work. That’s why I wanted to be a marine commander,” says Caleb.
Finding the Coffee Road
Nevertheless, after serving his country he went to the thing he liked the most: coffee. First time he ever tried it was when he was 8 or 9 years old and his mom gave him a sip, what left a big impression to last through the years. Over these years a lot has changed in South Korea: coffee culture went from ‘Da-bang’ (technically tea rooms) to freshly opened Starbucks franchises and then to the roaring third wave of specialty coffee, when local Korean companies started opening up independent coffee shops that developed Korean coffee market.
In 2008 Caleb moved to Australia, but struggled to find a job as he had no experience but had a language barrier, that stopped him for a bit. Working at a Korean restaurant for 6 months with very low salary that hardly allowed him to survive challenged him and pushed him to try something new, that is how he realized that Melbourne was a coffee capital. So he opted in a coffee course and never looked back.
The Man of the Year
It seems like working in a coffee mecca, brewing your favorite drink and watching the ocean every day might be a perfect life. Nevertheless, even behind such a dreamy picture you might face some hardships: “it was pretty hard to survive as an Asian barista back in the days in 2008; I had to face the prejudice that Asians cannot make coffee.” Some customers could just leave the shop if they saw an Asian barista at the machine. However, this gave Caleb a strong motivation to prove that he can do this and win the world championship.
“I never thought I’d be a latte artist because I was busy enough doing so many things in coffee. My latte art was mainly self-taught from internet but one day I started wondering how high my latte art level was.” Caleb competed 2011/2012 season but gave a miss by no chance and just watched 2013 WLAC results. Hisako Yoshikawa the 2013 champion shocked the world with her iconic ‘Rose’ free pouring. This inspired him so much that he decided to compete in 2014, that year he came 2nd in Australia so had to re-try for 2015.
After winning the World, everything changed for Caleb. From being an Asian barista from Australia he became the face of the coffee year 2015, with this came interviews, photos, TV shows, workshop requests, international invitations and fame. It all happened super fast and, as Caleb shares, he did not really expect to win that year, even though he wanted it of course, and he did not expect how fast he would become a hero of the year.
The Tiger Road
Living in Australia might be a very different experience from where Caleb came from. As he says, Korean society always pushes you to prove things. There are invisible guide lines that you should follow and you’ll be instantly an alien if you just don’t follow them. Too much care about the appearance but not about the inside. “One day I was just exhausted dealing with it, and I could not pretend that I was ok. So just left without leaving any regrets.”
The first overseas experience for Caleb was Australia as he attended ‘international cultural games festival’ in 1998. Everything in Australia was just way too beautiful and made him feel like it’s actually his home to be. Since then, he always had a fantasy living overseas. “I suppose I knew I’ll be living overseas one day so all of my plan was aimed overseas, and you see me where I am now.”
If you follow Caleb in any social media, you will notice that his middle name is Tiger, Caleb Tiger Cha, it makes it even more interesting since Tiger is not really his given name. As he was going through his life with all the experiences and challenges, Caleb understood that life is not all easy and rosy that is why he needed to rely on something to boost his confidence. Thinking of the strongest creature in the world, tiger was the answer: “It just gives me so much power every time I look at the tiger’s face, so I tattooed it”. Now with a tiger following him everywhere, it feels like the animal is taking care of Caleb, protecting him when he gets on a plane, runs a workshop, trains people and runs a business. The love for tigers also is reflected in the name of Caleb’s busines ‘Tigerous Espresso’ that he opened in 2018. “Tiger + tremendous’ became ‘Tigerous’ now it’s like my religion thing,” says Caleb.
The result of this whole journey ‘is Tigerous Espresso’ in Melbourne, it provides education and training for the coffee people. It also provides Caleb with his perfect work-life balanced lifestyle. Coming from a completely different background, what he learned in Australia is that you don’t have to sacrifice yourself alone for your team whereas Koreans mostly do this. Also, you can have your own character and you don’t have to be the same to others and no one has a problem with that. And as we can see Caleb does not only have his own character, but also a will of a winner and a strength of a tiger.