September 17, 2018

5 Barista Champions on How They Chose Their Competition Coffee


If you were to compete in the World Barista Championship, which coffee would you use?

This is one of the hardest and most important choices a competitor makes. That coffee has to represent their vision of the specialty industry. It has to be exceptional. It has to intrigue the most discerning of judges and stand out from the dozens of other coffees they drink that day.

I had the opportunity to ask five Barista Champions, all of whom competed with a Colombian coffee, about their choice: Sasa Sestic, 2015 World Barista Champion; Tim Wendelboe, 2004 World Barista Champion; Francesco Masciullo, 2017 Italian Barista Champion; Jason Loo, 2017 Malaysian Barista Champion; and Ronald Valero, 2018 Colombian Barista Champion.

Here’s what they told me.

Lee este artículo en español Cómo 5 Campeones de Barismo Eligieron Su Café Para Competir

Sasa Sestic

Sasa Sestic competes in the 2015 World Barista Championship. Credit: Jeff Hann Films

Sasa Sestic, 2015 WBC

Sasa sourced his coffee from Camilo Merizalde’s farm, Finca Santuario, in Cauca, Colombia. It was a Sudan Rume, a unique variety which originates from Sudan and has Bourbon parentage.

Find out more! Read Geisha vs Bourbon: A Crash Course in Coffee Varieties

So, why this coffee? Sasa explains that he tried coffees from several regions, but the Sudan Rume stood out, thanks to how sweet it was when served as espresso.

“In my experience in barista competitions,” he says, “I find that the judges are always looking for more sweetness and balanced acidity. So, we picked the Sudan Rume for its unbelievable sweetness and, as it is grown at an altitude of 2,000 m.a.s.l., the acidity was extremely complex, multi-layered, and sparkling.”

But that wasn’t the only thing that marked Sasa’s coffee as unusual: he also opted for carbonic maceration processing. This is an innovative fermentation method for which he took inspiration from the wine industry.

Sasa explains, “Camilo and I started collaborating on a new technique for processing, not to create new flavours but to better express what was already there and make it more distinct.”

This processing method consists of fermenting the cherries in a stainless-steel tank, into which carbon dioxide is injected and oxygen removed. Doing so slows down fermentation and consequently helps to produce a better flavour profile.

Sasa considers it to combine the best elements of washed and dry/natural processing. And what’s more, by controlling the temperature inside the tanks, he can either draw out more sweetness or more complex acidity.

Discover the science behind Sasa’s carbonic maceration processing!

planting coffee

Sasa Sestic planting coffee seedlings. Credit: Project Origin

For Sasa, the coffee industry is one of experimentation. And by trying new things, we find new ways to highlight flavours.

For his cappuccino, he blended a carbonic macerated coffee with a natural processed one. “Natural process coffees are famous for distinct berry notes and I wanted to have a coffee that was flavour-driven, but clean and refined,” he says. “By adding the carbonic maceration coffee with the natural process coffee, we created a balanced and flavour-forward coffee.”

When pulling his espresso shots, he used a faster extraction with 20.5 g in and 38.5 g out in over 19–20 seconds. Why? “In order to achieve the greatest balance of flavours as well as the flavours I was aiming for: plums and apricots, super sweet stone fruits, sparkling acidity,” he explains. “It still makes me smile when I think about it now; it’s a coffee I think I will remember for my entire life.”

A short extraction time like this could lead to sour coffee. However, Sasa counterbalanced it with a finer grind. “My extraction was only 19 seconds and the choice of grinder that I used really enabled us, with the ratio we used, to deliver a soluble extraction but at the same time a really refined and balanced taste experience,” he explains.

You might also like Should The World Barista Championship Use a Compulsory Coffee?

And for the cappuccino, he adjusted the espresso recipe. “I decided to dose my coffee a little bit higher to achieve more body within the cup,” he explains. “I also ground coarser because this can help us to extract florals and fruits out of the coffee. By pushing these lighter fruits with a lighter grind, I need to up my dose to achieve more body.”

young coffee

Sasa Sestic inspects young coffee saplings. Credit: Project Origin

Tim Wendelboe, 2004 WBC

When Tim competed, back in 2004, the World Coffee Championships were very different affairs. “It was not so easy to get the information about the coffee,” he explains, “so the only thing I know is that it was a Colombian Excelso. I have no idea who produced it, where in Colombia it was from and what variety.

“[It’s] quite a big difference from today, where I not only know the basic info on the coffees I buy, such as variety, altitude and farm name, but also what date the coffee was harvested and from what part of the farm, as well as all the details on fermentation time, drying times, etc.”

But either way, he was sure that a Colombian coffee would perform well. “In my opinion,” he says, “the best coffees from Colombia always have a very fruity cup, without being over fermented, and a lot of sweetness with a not-too-intense acidity. The mouthfeel can be really fatty and rich, which is quite unique to the Colombian coffees.”

Tim Wendelboe

Tim Wendelboe (centre) with Elias Roa on Finca El Suelo in Huila, Colombia. Credit: Tim Wendelboe

He chose to use a Colombian-Brazilian blend for the espresso and cappuccino rounds, telling me that blending was the norm at the time. “We thought the coffees would be more complex when we blended them. Today, I never blend coffees any more, as I want to present each coffee for its uniqueness, and the coffees I buy are a lot better, so they are complex and delicious on their own.”

As for his espresso recipe, Tim says, “Making espresso in 2004 was more a process of touch and feel, whereas today, we measure everything from how much dry dose of coffee we use to how much liquid ends up in the cup.”

But while his coffee-making process has changed, his belief that quality is determined by what happens on the farm has stayed the same. A barista, roaster, and coffee producer, he says, “If the coffee was harvested and processed right, and the farmer did a good job with his coffee trees, and the environment was great for the coffee, then the quality will show in the cup, if it was roasted and brewed well.”

the aroma of a coffee

Tim Wendelboe analyses the aroma of a coffee sample. Credit: Benjamin A. Ward

Francesco Masciullo, 2017 Italian Barista Champion

Francesco knows how much origin adds to a coffee’s flavour and aroma profile. That’s why he decided to showcase one variety – an SL-28 – grown in two completely different places – Kenya and Colombia. His goal was to demonstrate the impact of the terroir and the producer’s farming and processing choices on a coffee.

Discover more! Read What is Terroir & How Does It Affect My Coffee?

He chose the Colombian SL-28, which was natural processed, because “the taste was completely different than the SL-28 from Kenya… that is why [he] fell in love with this variety”. Unlike its Kenyan counterpart, the Colombian one had notes of grapes and berries.

And when he progressed from the Italian Barista Championship to the world stage, he added another coffee to his presentation: a honey processed Sidra from the award-winning Finca La Palma y El Tucán in Zipacón, Colombia. He tells me that it had citric acidity with mango, strawberry, and papaya notes.


Francesco Masciullo behind the coffee bar at Ditta Artigianale. Credit: Andrea Moretti

On the world stage, he used the Colombian SL-28 for his signature beverage. He tells me, “I was using a grape infusion… a specific variety of grape that grows just here in Italy.” This represented the impact of terroir on the coffee’s flavour.

But he also wanted a way to symbolise the human impact on flavour as well. And to do this, he used rose petals. “I was using rose petals because it has the same molecular component as the berries,” he explains.

“It was a really funny discovery, because if you make an infusion of rose petal and you leave it for 24 hours – this infusion was also put in a syphon with simple syrup and rose petals – and when you try it, it tastes of raspberry.”

The idea was to play with the way that human choices could change the expected flavour – rose petals – into something completely different – raspberry.

And in the end, with the grape infusion and rose petal infusions, he tells me that his signature beverage had notes of “raspberry and then strawberry and, at the end, a chocolate aftertaste. All these ingredients were to characterise the flavour of the Colombian SL-28.”

But that’s not the only unique thing that Francisco chose to do. He also decided to freeze the Colombian Sidra for his espresso round.

“When you have your beans at room temperature, the difference is that the water temperature, being at 93ºC, will enter the bean in two seconds,” he says. “Whereas, if you have ground coffee at, let’s say -15ºC, for example, when you grind coffee it will take slightly more [time] for the temperature to enter the grounds. And you get extraordinary flavours in your cup. The espresso gets sweeter and round.”

His espresso recipe was 19 g in for 48 g out in 20–21 seconds. “[With] a faster extraction, you can lose body but the flavour that you get is more clear,” he emphasises.

barista brewing coffee

Francesco brews coffee with an AeroPress at Ditta Artigianale. Credit: Andrea Moretti

Jason Loo, 2017 and 2015 Malaysian Barista Champion

Living in Southeast Asia, Jason has had plenty of opportunities to visit coffee farms. Ever since he first started working in coffee, back in 2012, he’s taken trips to Thailand and Indonesia to learn more about its production.

But for 2017, he wanted a new challenge. He wanted to compete with an entirely different type of coffee, one as far away from Asia as he could get. And so, he chose to visit Colombia.

In the end, he used a honey processed Geisha/Gesha from Finca El Trapiche in Nariño, which is owned by Abdias Lasso. “[The farm] mostly does other, different coffees like Catuai and Bourbon, and also the Colombians. But they don’t produce a lot of the Gesha, which is mainly exported to the US and not to Asia,” Jason says. “So we were very happy to work directly with them and have this coffee just for my competition.”

But of course, it wasn’t just about the name. The unique flavours appealed to Jason.

“It has a very intense orangy flavour, very sweet orange,” he emphasises, “and it bursts in the mouth… Also, there is definitely some cacao nibs inside and also a bit of brown sugar sweetness. So it’s really interesting and it’s very well textured and I really love it. And it also has a very comfortable lingering finish. That’s what really excites me and that’s also something I want to share with people.”

World Barista Championship

Jason Loo prepares for his presentation at the 2017 World Barista Championship. Credit: John Tan

For his espresso recipe, Jason used a 1:2 ratio in order to highlight the coffee’s intensity and also to pull out that “very comfortable” aftertaste.

As for his signature drink, he chose to represent the story of the farm it was grown on. Finca El Trapiche used to produce panela, a type of cane sugar grown in Latin America, before switching to coffee. And when Jason visited the region, he noticed many locals brewing coffee with panela water, something that he loved.

“It tasted really delicious,” he explains, “so I managed to secure some panela sugar from the family itself and then we managed to use it as part of the ingredients to bring together the whole idea behind it.”

He made a panela sugar syrup with 1:1 dilution, of which he used 15 ml to increase the coffee’s sweetness. He then used a pestle and mortar to grind 4 g of Papua New Guinean cacao nibs with 25 ml of simple syrup, before sieving it and adding 10 ml of it to his signature drink. Finally, he added a 15 g orange reduction to accentuate the coffee’s tangy acidity and citrus sweetness.

Adding all these ingredients, he tells me, brought out notes of mandarin orange, black plum, and baker’s chocolate, with a manuka honey finish.  

washed coffee

Jason Loo (left) and Abdias Lasso Munoz (right) inspect washed coffee as it dries on Finca El Trapiche in Nariño, Colombia. Credit: Joey Mah

Ronald Valero, 2018 and 2013 Colombian Barista Champion

Ronald is no stranger to the competition stage: he frequently competes in the nationals and this year, in Amsterdam, was his second time in the World Championship representing Juan Valdez Café. He tells me, “My role as a barista is about representing the hard work of the producer.”

He’s been working with the same producer, Milton Monroy of Finca San Pedro, Tolima, for the last four years – but it’s not just about the close relationship they have built.

He explains that this year, when he knew he would compete internationally, he received more than 30 samples from producers. Yet when he cupped them with his team, he was surprised and delighted to discover that, once again, his favourite was one of Milton’s coffees. This time, it was a Geisha.

coffee producers

Ronald Valero (front) with his son Esteban and three coffee producers from Tolima: Jairo Lopez, Jesus Antonio, and Humberto Monroy. Credit: Maria Paula Rojas

So, how did Ronald set about representing this wonderful coffee? Well, he tells me that he is fascinated by coffee aromas and how they impact flavour.

He’s studied the chemical compounds that create these aromas and, for his signature beverage, sought ingredients with similar compounds: hazelnuts to represent furans, fruits for aldehydes, and so on. In particular, he wanted to capture the gooseberry aroma of the Geisha he used.

Everything from the ingredients to the glassware was chosen specifically to enhance these qualities.

producers from Tolima

Ronald Valero (second from right) with his son Esteban and three producers from Tolima: Humberto Monroy, Jairo Lopez, and Milton Monroy. Credit: Comité de Cafeteros

The World Barista Championship is an opportunity to shape the trends of the specialty coffee industry. It can change how we understand coffee, origin, and our relationship with baristas and producers. It can redirect our attention to new issues and spark conversations.

Every barista comes prepared to demonstrate their vision of specialty coffee – and the coffee they choose is a key part of that.

And every Champion that I spoke to wanted to raise the bar for quality, bring new ideas into the discussion, and highlight the role of producers.

Enjoyed this? Check out Should The World Barista Championship Use a Compulsory Coffee?

Please note: This article has been sponsored by the Café de Colombia.

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