Australia’s Hugh Kelly on His WBC Finals Run

Hugh Kelly, fifth-place finisher at the 2017 World Barista Championship representing Australia, discusses his experience in Seoul.


Photos by Kenneth R. Olson

Hugh Kelly is inquisitive by nature. In his role in research and development with Australia’s ONA Coffee, Kelly (as he goes by) routinely questions existing ideas and tries to bring fresh thinking to old problems. He drew on this approach for his 2017 World Barista Championship routine, delivering an energetic performance centered around breaking down preconceived notions in coffee. (Watch his finals performance here.)

The routine was good enough to earn Kelly fifth place at the 2017 WBC in Seoul, South Korea, in what was his second-straight WBC appearance. Following his most recent WBC run, Kelly talked to us about his coffee background, what he learned from his colleague (and 2015 World Barista Champion) Sasa Sestic, and how he approached the 2017 competition.

Chris Ryan: Can you tell me a bit about your background? What’s your role at ONA Coffee, and what are your day-to-day responsibilities?
Hugh Kelly: I grew up in Sydney and moved to Canberra to study commerce at university. Coffee was a casual job on the side for me before I met Sasa, when we had started ONA Coffee nearly 10 years ago. He asked me if I wanted to compete in a regional barista competition, and I jumped in not really knowing what I was getting into.

Hugh Kelly is the 2017 barista champion of Australia. He also represented Australia at the 2016 World Barista Championship in Dublin.

After a year of being a barista, I started working for ONA in one of their cafés, where I continued to learn and compete each year. Coffee quickly became more important than university, and when I graduated a few years ago, I moved full-time into a training role in wholesale. I now work in research and development with a goal of improving the consistency and quality of coffee delivered in the café and in competition.

My role involves doing talks around Australia and playing with new approaches to coffee preparation, machinery, and equipment development—a large part of this in collaboration with San Remo. I also work in quality control, and recipes and approaches to be filtered through trainers in the company, too. It’s a very broad and fun role that I’m very excited to continue.

CR: I imagine working so closely with Sasa was a huge help for you in competition. What was that experience like?
HK: Sasa has the most incredible attitude and work ethic to anything competitive. His mindset is definitely something I’ve learned a great deal from, and this really changed the way I think about and approach competition and training. He has also been very helpful in opening up my mind and realizing who I am and what I really believe in. Having this understanding of who I am and what I want to achieve in coffee really helped me shape my own routine, message, and delivery in a way I couldn’t have done even a year ago.

Kelly works for ONA Coffee and was coached by the 2015 World Barista Champion, Sasa Sestic, who forced him to think critically about his beliefs and how he wanted to approach his coffee.

CR: I know you represented Australia in the 2016 WBC as well. How was your experience different this year? What did you learn from your first trip that helped you this time?
HK: In order to achieve better, you have to go through tough times. For anyone out there who has experienced disappointment in competition, the single most important thing you can do is to use this constructively. Last year I was not in control; I could execute a good routine, but there was no real consistency. This year I pushed to make my weaknesses my strengths. I put far more effort into being in control, and if there was a feeling about anything, I wasn’t going to hope it would work out—I had to confront the weakness to understand it. This meant on the [competition] day I felt in control and was able to deliver a routine I was far happier with.

CR: Can you talk about the theme of your competition this year of questioning rules and breaking down preconceived notions in coffee? How did you arrive at that, and how did you develop it into a routine?
HK: Last year I realized my approach to coffee was not ideal because one small mistake could be the difference between a nice coffee and a terrible coffee. I’ve worked the same way for a long time, and after talking with [2014 World Barista Champion] Hidenori Izaki about how he approaches coffee with so many different competitors and roasting styles from all over the world, I realized I needed to explore areas I hadn’t tried before.

Kelly pushed exploration in his routine: He debuted a milk-steaming technique that introduced no water into his milk using the Breville machines above.

So my first step was resetting my perceived barriers in roasting and extraction, testing extremes of the key major variables such as dose, brew ratio, temperature, roast approaches, and more. I started to see expressions of coffees that excited me using doses as low as 10g in the basket. This really showed me that there are no rules to making delicious coffee, and that I have far more control over coffee expression than I thought. So my routine was really just demonstrating how opening your mind can be extremely liberating and exciting.

CR: Finally, what was your overall experience at WBC? How did it feel to make the finals representing Australia?
HK: My overall experience was great. I have learned a huge amount, and at the same time I’ve opened up new questions to play with when I get back to work, which is always exciting. Making the finals was very exciting for me, and I’m so proud to be among that amazing group of baristas given the standard was so high this year.

About Chris Ryan 259 Articles
Chris Ryan (he/him) is Barista Magazine's online copy editor and a freelance writer and editor with a background in the specialty coffee industry. He has been content director of Sustainable Harvest and the editor of Fresh Cup Magazine.