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Sasa Sestic on life after WBC

Sasa Sestic tells BeanScene how he found himself again after becoming the 2015 World Barista Champion, and his commitment to guiding the next generation of champions. 

Winning the World Barista Championship (WBC) seems like a dream for many, but for Sasa Sestic of Ona Coffee, it was one he was determined would come true.

“Coffee competitions have definitely helped me push myself, in depth, to find the reason why I love coffee,” says the 2015 World Barista Champion.

“I started competing in 2008 in the Australian Capital Territory. In the first year, I didn’t make it to nationals. I then won in the ACT three years in a row, going to nationals, competing at that level, and not making it to the finals. By going to nationals and being involved, even if I didn’t get the placement I was hoping for, at least I could learn from my colleagues and taste the best coffees in the countries from other baristas. This helped me to understand what the benchmark is.”

Sasa took a year off from competition in 2012, using that time to improve, travel, and gain more experience on the farm processing coffee – what he loves about coffee.

Returning to competition in 2013, Sasa not only progressed to the finals of nationals but placed third. The next year, he placed fourth. Sasa says what took him to the next level for his 2015 WBC crowning run was having a team with him, including 2014 World Barista Champion Hidenori Izaki as his coach.

“I decided I couldn’t really work by myself anymore. Up until 2015, I would roast my own coffee and even grow it myself on the farm. I had Hidenori as my coach and [Ona’s Director of Coffee] Sam Corra roast my coffee, which allowed me to dig deeper into my routine, extraction, and work with my coffee,” Sasa says.

“It’s important to have a coach or mentor when competing. But it doesn’t have to be a World Barista Champion like Hidenori, it needs to be someone to help bring the best out of you. If you’re surrounded by fans, all you hear is praise. You need a coach that will challenge you and make you uncomfortable but has a clear understanding of what you’re aiming for or where you’re heading to get the best out of you.” 

Since Sasa won the WBC, Ona Coffee expanded its team and entered several new states. Sister company and green bean trader, Project Origin, began working in more countries and continents, including the Middle East and Asia.

“None of this would have happened this fast without the WBC, but we’re not just going around the 2015 roundabout. The WBC gave us the confidence we needed to take risks and keep experimenting,” Sasa says. 

“The WBC opens many doors for you. As a professional, it helped me to dig deeper in coffee and meet different people all over the world who feel similarly about coffee.”

Sasa says “everything changed” when he won the WBC. While mostly positive, it came with downsides.

“I definitely lost a sense of myself. ‘Who am I? What am I supposed to do?’ I picked some opportunities I normally wouldn’t and maybe drifted more than I should,” he says. “I travelled about 200 days a year for three years, which had a negative impact on my family and watching my kids grow. I lost myself as a parent and as a person a little bit. 

“The first three years were like a strong, rapid river. It happened in a flash, and I’ve talked to other World Barista Champions afterwards who said similar things. I’m glad I found myself again.”

Sasa’s journey to the 2015 WBC was documented in the film The Coffee Man by Jeff Hann, a title shared by Sasa’s first book and podcast. Jeff has now brought Sasa’s experiences post-WBC to the screen in the recently-released documentary Coffee Heroes.

The film depicts Sasa’s journey as a competition coach, from taking Ona’s Hugh Kelly to the 2016 WBC to working with 2018 champion Agnieszka ‘Aga’ Rojewska. However, Sasa says neither movie set out to focus on coffee competitions.

“This is typical Jeff style. When we made The Coffee Man, Jeff asked if he could follow me on the farms to make a film about the farmers. While travelling, I told him I have this competition coming up and he asked if he could follow me to Seattle. I won, and on the flight back he told me, ‘I’m going to make a movie about you and your journey to becoming a champion’,” he says.

“After The Coffee Man was finished, we asked Jeff about returning to the original project, going to farms to tell the stories of coffee producers. We travelled to Ethiopia and a few different countries, with Aga and some other competitors too. World Coffee Events also asked Jeff to do some recording and photography at the 2018 WBC.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. After Aga won, I had to rush to the airport that night. Hidenori and Jeff were there. We were just talking and Hidenori goes, ‘so boys, what’s the next movie going to be about?’ We knew it had to be about Aga.”

When deciding which competitors to work with in the 2018 competition season, Sasa wanted to find someone without a large team behind them and that was from a country that had never been represented in the WBC finals. Project Origin Green Bean Buyer Yanina Ferreyra recommended Aga from Poland.

“The purpose of a coach is to help the competitor find their own way. When I coached Hugh Kelly in 2016, I feel that I failed. I tried to copy and paste a mini version of Sasa Sestic into Hugh Kelly and that doesn’t work. His presentation was about fermentation and processing. It’s everything I love about coffee, but it’s not what Hugh loves,” Sasa says.

“When I started coaching Aga, she told me, ‘Sasa, I’ve never been on a coffee farm. I don’t know about processing like you do.’ I said ‘don’t focus on what you don’t like. Why do you like coffee?’ She loved the service, the people, being in the coffee shop. That was how her presentation was born: ‘come to my coffee shop: past, present, and future.’ For some people, it was ground breaking. For Aga, it was just delivering what she is about. I was just there to guide her to be the best version of Aga she could be.”

After working with Aga, Sasa has continued to coach, including the 2019 Kenyan Barista Champion Martin Shabayawinner. While COVID-19 has limited his ability to travel and coach in-person, Sasa says the skills he has learned and developed working with Aga and other competitors – like New Zealand’s John Gordon and the United Arab Emirates’ Ibrahim Al Mallouhi – have improved him as a business leader.

“Most business owners are like teachers because they just show people how to perform their job. Being a coach or mentor, you don’t tell people what to do or show them how to do it. You try to understand their path and help them down it,” he says.

“By doing that, your employees start becoming leaders and bringing new or different ideas. A lot of new initiatives in our company don’t happen because Sasa Sestic came up with them. They come up because we’ve nurtured our team to become leaders. They have this freedom and come up with so many initiatives, which especially with COVID-19, has helped us sustain the company.”

Despite COVID-19 cases on the rise in Europe and the United States, Sasa is positive about the future of the global coffee industry and is excited to see another barista bring their dream to life at the next WBC.

“On a bigger scale, the WBC is a platform for new ideas and innovation,” Sasa says.

“I want to see this industry progressing, getting better, evolving from day to day, and I feel like I can do my part by inspiring young, talented, special baristas that need that a small push to take coffee further in their own way.”