Agnieszka Rojewska has been gracing the competition stage for more than 10 years. The eight-time national titleholder and former World Barista Champion explains why she enjoys the thrill of the chase, but not always the catch.
When 2018 World Barista Champion Agnieszka Rojewska boarded a flight in Milan, she was stopped for a selfie. When she looked on Instagram she saw a video of herself walking down the street someone had just posted. And when she went to the supermarket, the cashier stared at her and said, “congratulations. I know who you are”.
The thought of maintaining a public profile is something accustomed to famous sports stars, actors, and musicians, but it was never part of the contract Agnieszka signed up for.
Her 37,600 Instagram followers – on last count – has her baffled, and she still draws crowds when she travels, a year and half since her World Barista Championship (WBC) crowning. Why? It’s a question Agnieszka asks herself.
“The best answer I can give is the fact that I represent my followers: the community of ‘wannabe baristas’, the ones who don’t come from a company pedigree of competition champions or have the self believe they can win,” Agnieszka says.
“I didn’t believe it was possible to win [the WBC] from a small country town in Poland like Poznan. It’s a financial struggle to make a full-time career out of barista work. It’s a low-paid job, and I didn’t come from a big company that backed their baristas with financial support and training. I used all my savings to compete. My team consisted of just two people.”
Specialty coffee was non-existent in Agnieszka’s upbringing. Typical Polish coffee consisted of hot water poured over freeze-dried granules. She had her first sip of the beverage at 16 years of age as a means to get through a stressful week of study. She didn’t particularly like it on the first try, nor the second or third. But she did discover the caramel macchiato, and was hooked on its sweet dessert-like characteristics.
It wasn’t until years later studying economics at university that Agnieszka would frequent then-Polish coffee chain Coffeeheaven for her caramel macchiatos. Her father insisted she get a job, so Agnieszka submitted her CV to the local shop and started her first role as a barista.
It was only meant to be a summer job, but she stayed. In her first year, Agnieszka’s colleague signed her up for the chain’s internal latte art competition. Her teddy bear design didn’t make the grade, but Agnieszka says it was the moment she saw her competitive nature shine through.
In 2014, Agnieszka’s tenacity took hold and she won her first national latte art title with a Darth Vader design. She says the win gave her the confidence she needed, not to mention brand awareness for her newly opened coffee shop.
Agnieszka threw herself into the world of latte art and explored the possibilities on YouTube. She credits social media for teaching her how to pour simple patterns and inspiring her successful competition streak, winning the Polish Latte Art Championship from 2016 to 2018 with a world ranking of third place in 2017.
Latte art may be the skill that ignited Agnieszka’s love of competition, but it’s the barista category that took her to greater heights. She turned her attention to the barista championship in 2015 because it was simply “the most prestigious and the most popular” at the time, and had “rules that were black and white”.
Agnieszka says this was the year her career really took off. She won the Polish Barista Championship, went from brunette to blonde, and won €4000 (about $6000) in a latte art challenge.
“That was the year that started everything. It was the only time Poland had really gotten on board with my barista career. Most of the time, I had support from my hometown of Poznan, but that year the entire country backed me with a national support campaign,” Agnieszka says.
Live sites were established to watch her perform in the WBC in Seattle, and café customers created stickers and posters with the tagline “keep everything crossed for Aga” – and it spread. That year she placed 34th, and achieved the same ranking in Dublin the following year.
“Poland had lost hope of ever winning the WBC and at one point I felt maybe I should retire. My goal was to place 15th, but really I just wanted to be better than 34th,” she says.
However, there was something about the 2018 WBC. Not only did Agnieszka achieve her goal of top 15, she made the top six. When she did that, there was only one position on her mind.
On the day of the final round, Agnieszka woke feeling rested. She had ice cream for breakfast. There was no traffic on the way to the expo, and when she tasted her coffee that morning with green bean supplier and 2015 WBC winner Sasa Sestic, they were happy. There was nothing to stress about. She completed her routine in time. She didn’t break anything. Everything went smoothly. It was a “dream run”.
“I really wanted to bring the wooden tamper trophy home, and I did. You can imagine my disbelief the moment I won the WBC. I never believed I could win,” Agnieszka says.
The reason she did, Agnieszka believes, comes down to her “amazing coffee”, the way she celebrated customer service, and a bit of luck.
“If I’m honest, I didn’t think it was a winning routine,” she says. “It wasn’t about chemical reactions or a new groundbreaking technique. At the time, my signature beverages were innovative, but it was my focus on customer service that I thought was too simple. One of the judge’s comments was: “general understanding but enough and relevant.” The judges had always said, ‘bring the customer experience on stage’, so Iliterally did.”
Agnieszka became the first woman to win the WBC title. It’s a fact she is proud of, but she’s more proud that she won it at all.
“For me, winning is competitive. The fact that I now fly the flag for women is great, because the reality is that for many women out there, we simply don’t have the time to ‘play’ or ‘train’ as much as we want to. We have more factors to contend with. So if I’ve opened a door for them that’s great, but I hope my win is further inspiration to anyone that doubts their ability, because if you don’t try, you’ll never be ready, and you’ll never know,” Agnieszka says.
What followed her WBC win was a rush of marketing interest, a spike in her social media following, and to a certain extent, a loss of freedom.
“The moment you win [the WBC] you gain a new life, but you also lose a life. I wasn’t ready for it and I didn’t expect it,” Agnieszka says.
“My life was turned upside down. My body shut down from so much travel doing talks and demonstrations. I thought [the hype] would finish a year after I won, but it kept going. Being a champion is just an opportunity and you make of it what you want.”
When Agnieszka knelt down and presented the WBC trophy to the 2019 champion Jooyeon Jeon, the South Korean barista looked at Agnieszka and said: “what do I do now?”
“I told her ‘you don’t have to do anything. If you want to be a green bean buyer, go do it. If you want to be a coach do it. It’s whatever you want it to be’,” she says.
Agnieszka misses her free days and the luxury of sleep, but when it comes to competition, she has some unfinished business.
“After all these years, I have never won the World Latte Art Championship and I don’t think I will, but it’s the one I want to win most. To win, you need to be different, and like good actors and singers, they need to be memorable,” she says. “I just need to wait for the right time, until I’m hungry again.”
All going to plan, Agnieszka also aims to compete in the World Brewers Cup and Coffee in Good Spirits Championship in the years ahead.
“The problem is that since I’ve already won a competition, there’s automatic expectation and interest that I will do well because I have a title next to my name. The advantage is that I know how to compete, but I don’t know how to compete at worlds. There’s too much pressure. Someone has to win. Those who do often tend to be the people who care a little less than those who want it so badly.”
Agnieszka puts herself in the category that cares a little less.
“People assume coffee is my passion. Yes it is, but I have many passions. I love football, I like Netflix – crime shows in particular – and I like to play PlayStation. Coffee is a job for me. I have never been super passionate about it and origin is a great experience, but I don’t feel I can make a difference there. In a café, I know I can,” she says.
“The moment I took coffee seriously was when I decided not to have a job that matched my university degree. Specialty coffee in Poland is small but it’s growing. Taxes are big, you need staff you can’t afford, and it’s a waste of time to invest in them only to have them leave for another career option.”
For now, Agnieszka is happy travelling the world and taking on a new position as Head of Coffee Education and Culture at Italian coffee machine manufacturer Carimali in Bergamo.
“What I’ve learnt is that if you plan, it doesn’t work out, so I don’t. My new position with Carimali will be an adventure. I’m looking forward to discovering a different, more business-like side to coffee,” she says.
This article appears in FULL in the December 2019 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.