Why has Sasa Sestic of Ona Coffee made a comeback to coffee competitions?

Sasa Sestic

Like many coffee professionals during the past two years of lockdowns, Sasa Sestic brewed more coffee at home than he did at his café and roastery. Restricted from travel and visits to origin, Sasa would challenge his 19-year-old son Aleks to ‘brew-off’ challenges, with Aleks often beating the 2015 World Barista Champion and Founder of Ona coffee and Project Origin.

“I couldn’t understand why, so I started to think more deeply about brewing in general. It made me question everything I knew about it. When we judge and buy coffees at farm level, we cup filter coffee. It’s how we perceive the value of a coffee, but I wanted the opportunity to go further and explore its full potential, beyond cupping it,” Sasa says.

The last time Sasa competed in a competition stage was the 2015 World Barista Championship (WBC) where he celebrated espresso and introduced carbonic maceration (CM) processing. This time, Sasa has gone down the filter rabbit hole with a newfound determination to understand brewing “at a crazy level”, even turning his Canberra office into a brew bar.

“To get back into the ring, I needed a reason to come back that was true and honest,” Sasa says.

“I am very competitive by nature. Without a timeline and goal in place, I don’t think I would have achieved the end result or depth of research I have, as fast as I have, if I did not compete. Competition is the best way to get the best out of myself. I’m so happy I decided to come back and compete with reasons that are genuine and honest, and the goal to make better coffee than what it was before.”

Seven years ago, Sasa would dedicate every waking moment to his competition routine. This time, however, the father of two is careful to find a balance between family and competition life, choosing to train early in the mornings and find the balance he says former WBC competitors Matthew Lewin and Hugh Kelly found.

Ona Wholesale Director of Coffee and 2018 World Brewers Cup Runner Up Sam Corra is Sasa’s coach, and 2014 WBC winner Hidenori Izaki of Japan is Sasa’s competition mentor. Professor Dr. Chahan Yeretzian of Zurich University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland has also worked with Sasa to research his coffee’s volatile compounds.

“I have this amazing opportunity to prepare my routine from A to Z and do it mostly by myself,” Sasa says. “Of course, I have an amazing team of people helping me and supporting me, and so far, it’s been a very enjoyable experience.”

Sasa practiced his routine for a few months without sharing it with anyone. When his family finally got to watch his competition run-through, they understood his intentions and desire to return to the stage after seven years.

“My son Aleks in particular, is one of the main reasons I’m competing. He is a key person that motivated me to explore filter coffee in more lot more depth. When he watched me compete at the ASCA Central Region Barista Championship, he told me couldn’t breathe for 10 minutes he was so nervous,” Sasa says.

For his competition routine, Sasa has shifted his focus into terroir and how it is connected at farm level and with the soil. It has less focus on fermentation, where Sasa acknowledges in some cases, it can mask the importance of terroir.

“I wanted to come back to showcase the depth of farming and terroir. I get emotional when I discover and taste a beautiful espresso but I’ve never had that feeling with a filter coffee. I really want to take this journey to enjoy filter coffee the same way I enjoy espresso,” he says.

The coffee Sasa presented to the judges is a Green Tip Geisha from Iris Estate in Panama.

Sasa started the farm in 2017 with producer Jamison Savage of Finca Deborah, inspired by the way Ethiopian coffee is shade grown at extreme elevations.

Iris Estate ranges from 1800 to 2300 metres above sea level, which Sasa says is unheard of for Panama-grown coffee. The coffee trees are surrounded by an ecosystem of birds, animals and beneficiary trees that produce natural nitrogen.

“Jamison and I always think about ‘what’s next’, and how we can make better coffee and add more value,” Sasa says. “We want to inspire other coffee producers to create their own microclimates within their own farms and add value to what they do. Our farm is no longer a dream, it’s a reality, and a magical place I’m super proud of.

“I remember seeing trees that were 300 to 500 years old in the forests of Ethiopia, and just how colourful the environment was. At Iris, we have many different altitudes, microclimates, varietals, shade and beneficiary trees, and the goal is to replicate the many colours of coffee in the cup with the intensity of flavour.”

That colour was represented in Sasa’s competition coffee, which he best identifies as having “confectionary sweetness”.

“The first time we tasted this coffee in 2019 in Boston, we just had 300 grams. The best way I can describe it is being confectionery sweet. Geisha coffees normally have beautiful jasmine, bergamot, citrus, and floral notes, but this one didn’t taste like a Geisha. The following year when the trees had matured, the soil was lush and fertile, and the root system had gone a lot deeper, producing intense, confectionery sweetness, and with the usual floral characters that we get from Geisha,” Sasa says.

To keep the flavour true to Sasa’s style, he experimented with “just enough fermentation”, encouraging lactic acidity and whole cherry carbonic maceration to refine the coffee’s crisp flavours so that its terroir was clear in the cup.

For the next few months leading to the ASCA National Championship, Sasa says he’ll continue to finetune what he’s started so that the result is something he’s proud of.

“Absolutely everything needs to be polished. [Winning the ASCA Central Regions] has given me the confidence I needed. I’ve relaxed for the past two weeks, and now I’m ready to start practicing again,” Sasa says.

He adds that representing Australia on the world stage again would be a dream come true, but for now, he’s taking one step at a time, with Nationals the most important next step in his competition campaign.

“One of the bigger reasons I was motivated to compete this year was to have the opportunity to present my drive and love for the craft of coffee making, it’s what I do. It’s my life.  To share that in front of family and friends, in Australia, in front of ASCA, it’s special,” Sasa says.

“The reason we are who we are, is because of these competitions and the beautiful community we have in Australia. To have the opportunity to be on stage and represent that community is already a dream come true.”

Read more comp news: https://www.beanscenemag.com.au/angus-mackies-triumphant-return-and-win-at-asca-central-region-vitasoy-barista-championship/

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