Coffee's not just a pretty photo for barista champion Sasa Sestic

Sasa Sestic won the World Barista Championship last year, a feat chronicled in the documentary The Coffee Man.
Sasa Sestic won the World Barista Championship last year, a feat chronicled in the documentary The Coffee Man. ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

Barista champion Sasa Sestic says the drink should be enjoyed for its taste and not for a caffeine fix or an Instagram moment

It is hard to believe that the current world barista champion Sasa Sestic did not like coffee.

The former handball athlete, who retired from the sport at age 24, worked as a barista in his hometown of Canberra, Australia. But he had no passion for the drink.

"I liked making coffee and talking to people, but I didn't like to drink coffee. I found it bitter and smoky."

The turning point came about three years later, when he tried a cup of coffee in Sydney.

"I tasted blueberries, raspberries and blackcurrants. It was delicious," says the Bosnia-born Sestic, 37, whose family moved to Australia in 1997.

Since then, the owner of Canberra speciality coffee chain Ona Coffee has been living and breathing coffee, especially when competing for the World Barista Championship (WBC), often seen as the Olympics for baristas.

His life story and coffee journey is chronicled in the documentary The Coffee Man, which premiered last week at the Capitol Theatre to invited guests. There were no public screenings.

Sestic was also here for the launch of new e-commerce platform Cafebond, where coffee lovers can buy beans from 15 notable cafes in Australia, including Ona Coffee. The other 14 cafes are from Melbourne and include Seven Seeds, Market Lane and Industry Beans.

Cafebond is part of DBS Bank's start-up support programme DBS Hotspot 2016, with China venture capital firm Quest Ventures as its investor. It is founded by Mr Keyis Ng, 28, a marketing professional, and Mr Eugene Chen, 31, a former IT developer.

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On the partnership with Cafebond, Sestic says that he wants Singaporeans to have access to his beans. After all, he takes pride in having a close relationship with the coffee producers he buys from, through Project Origin, an ethical green bean trading company which he founded in 2011.

He also owns coffee farms in Honduras and Nicaragua, and is looking to purchase another farm in El Salvador in the next six months. Besides buying beans from the farms, he also uses them for research and development to experiment with new methods of farming or producing better beans.

He says: "If a cup of coffee is not to your liking, it takes a barista three minutes to make another cup. But it takes the farmer four years to see if he has done something right. We want to make sure that his time is not wasted."

While he generally drinks four to six cups of coffee a day, he says he can drink more than 100 a day for work tastings and intense cupping sessions. It is his constant quest to find the "perfect cup", which he compares to meeting a first love.

However, the "love" is shortlived.

"I find a perfect cup, enjoy it for two weeks and then I think, what's next?" says Sestic, whose 37-year- old wife Beti is in the business with him, handling administration. They have a daughter Ana, 13, and son Aleks, eight.

He hopes that people do not view coffee as merely a caffeine fix or an Instagrammable photo.

He says: "It is an experience, just like wine. And while I understand that people like latte art, that's all it is, a pretty picture. It's like icing on a cake. The cake needs to be delicious too."

The coffee scene in Australia has grown steadily over the past five years, he says, as reputable roasters are mastering a good brew and contributing to the overall quality of coffee.

He adds: "It's also about the service and venue. Food is also important to complement the coffee."

The perfectionist in him stems from his years of competing for the WBC. He won the world title on his seventh attempt.

The competition features 52 barista champions from their own countries battling it out in three intense rounds. Six of them make it to the finals. In each round, competitors prepare and serve 12 coffee beverages in 15 minutes - four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature drinks.

The Coffee Man documents Sestic's emotional chase for the WBC title, which saw him thoroughly exhausted after the first round. He was rushed to the hospital after completing his presentation, but returned the next day and pulled through for the next two rounds.

Since his win, Sestic has travelled all over the world as an ambassador for coffee. But when asked for his opinion of local kopi, he pauses momentarily, smiles sheepishly and says: "It's... interesting. It's... different. Let's leave it at that."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2016, with the headline 'Coffee's not just a pretty photo'. Print Edition | Subscribe