Earlier this month, the 2015 Cafe Imports Barista Origin Trip took a half dozen or so lucky competition baristas to Colombia for a whirlwind tour of coffee farms, festivals, and horseback rides. Sprudge-embedded reporter Emily McIntyre interviewed each of the champion coffee professionals for a series of exclusive spotlight features. Up first, it's 2015 World Barista Champion Sasa Sestic.
Once a member of the Serbian Olympic handball team and now owner of Ona Coffee in Canberra, Australia, Sasa (pronounced “Sasha”) Sestic is a tall, spare gentleman with a face that alternates between fierce concentration and childlike wonder. Every moment of his trajectory to win the World Barista Championship was planned and after being in and out of the competition circuit for seven years, he has put a lot of thought into what his position as coffee ambassador entails. Let’s get the obvious question out of the way first.
Sprudge: Tell us about that magical moment when 2014 World Barista Champion Hidenori Izaki handed you the trophy.
Sasa Sestic: I kept thinking it was a dream. The morning after, I woke up and the cup was still there in my hotel room. Honestly, a lot of emotions came up: when I held that trophy for the first time, I was thinking of every moment in my life since I fell in love with coffee til now. And things changed for me. Before, it was about chasing perfection, having an amazing team with close families. But after winning WBC it’s not about me, or my company, or Canberra anymore. It’s about growing specialty coffee worldwide.
Did you receive anything other than a trophy from Hide?
Well, yes. He took me aside after I won and said, “Sasa, this year is up to you. You can make it about you, or you can inspire other people in the industry and make a difference.” And I was just looking at him and thinking how much he inspired me—he was my coach—and others around the world. And so…my heart is in the origins, and I am taking this year to use my title to inspire producers and connect them with others in the industry.
Well, many ways. For one, I’m writing a book. I think I will call it The Eyes of a Coffee Man, and it will contain my vision for the specialty coffee industry and what we need to do to make it better. I’m about halfway through writing it. It will include detailed information on my preparation for WBC as well as in-depth exploration of projects in origin countries like Banexport and Elkin Guzman of Finca Mirador. This will be a helpful resource to farmers, who don’t have access to innovation in other countries, as well as for consumers. The proceeds of the book will go toward my project in Honduras, and I hope to sell a lot of books so I can do a lot of good there.
Tell us more about Honduras.
We are building a quality lab in the Santa Barbara region, along with a guest house, on Finca La Huerta. The La Huerta folks were Cup of Excellence winners in 2013, and people in the area look up to them. This project can unite the whole region. I feel deeply invested in Honduras.
How’d that happen?
I have been visiting Honduras since 2011, and in 2012 I did my usual buying routine. The very last day of my visit, Rony Gamez from IHCAFE asked me if I could give him feedback on twelve coffees, even though I’d bought all I needed. When I came to cup number twelve, I fell in love. It just grew and grew on me. I scored it 90, 91 points and I broke my rules of always meeting the producer when I buy a coffee because I had to leave. I bought twenty bags, and we started communicating by email. That’s how I met Jorge Lanza and started working with La Huerta. In fact, I had the honor of suggesting he enter Cup of Excellence, and then he won with 92.75 points. He called me, and they were crying. On my end, we opened wine and celebrated. It was one of my happiest moments.
We’ve been working together ever since, and I bought a farm that neighbors his. We’ve done so many experiments. We’re getting soil analysis every month, working with IHCAFE on fertilization, and we have been separating the branches into top, middle, and bottom by flavor. I used Jorge’s coffee for my 2014 barista competition.
How has the community taken to your presence?
Actually, it’s been beautiful. When I talk with my neighbors, I want to help them. That’s why I’m leading this project to bring buyers to our microclimate, to buy coffees after the usual February/March cutoff point for typical coffee purchasing decisions.
It all ties back to the massive responsibility I have received when I won the WBC. It’s not about me anymore, is it?