How America’s best barista makes a perfect cup of coffee

Posted at 8:29 PM, Apr 24, 2017

DURHAM, North Carolina — For Lem Butler, a cup of coffee isn’t just a cup of coffee.

That cup or a single shot of espresso represents a community that reaches around the world.

The winner of the 2016 US barista championship, Butler has traced his favorite beverage back to its origins: From the farmers who grow and harvest the coffee to the company that roasts them to the coffee baristas he trains to prepare the coffee at their cafes for the people who drink it.

“It’s a simple recipe of coffee and water, but it’s a recipe that can be done well,” says Butler. “But most often, it’s a recipe that can be done very badly.”

His goal is to educate people about their coffee, and to help them make it better and enjoy it more.

“We want to really hone in on how much time the coffee and the water are sitting together, so we can pull out sweetness, we can pull out brightness,” Butler tells a recent class of baristas learning about espresso fundamentals.

Butler attended the Specialty Coffee Association’s 2017 US competition in Seattle in April, but he didn’t compete this year. Instead, he trained others to compete and showcased his DJ skills at the competition.

A barista’s barista

Lem Butler

By day, the country’s best barista trains other baristas for Counter Culture Coffee’s wholesale clients at the company’s headquarters and roasting facility in Durham, North Carolina. (The company has 11 training centers around the United States, with two more scheduled to open soon.)

Starting off with a tasting of five coffees, he talks about sourcing, the ratio of ground coffee to water, weighing the coffee and other factors that go into a good cup of coffee with his students.

“We can pull out the different nuances that make the coffee what it is, which can be really delicious if we get the recipe right.”

Some baristas attend the introductory and advanced courses before opening their own cafes, while existing clients send new employees to learn the ropes and veterans to get more skills.

Learning from the US barista champion could be an intimidating experience, but company co-founder and president Brett Smith says Butler’s easy personality takes away the stress.

“He has this charisma, and the way he carries himself, so that in no way do you feel like he’s condescending,” Smith says. “On top of that, he’s very skilled in competition but doesn’t flaunt it in a way that’s intimidating. He brings you along appropriately.”

While he knows his product well, which is required, he also has a “laid back and awesome demeanor,” adds Smith.

Becoming a barista without knowing coffee

Teaching the intermediate espresso fundamentals class.

A musician and political science graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Butler says he didn’t expect to be working in coffee for more than a year.

After a few years of touring with his band and working as a DJ, he applied for a barista job at a coffee shop at UNC without knowing anything about coffee.

When a friend asked him to support him at a regional barista competition in 2004, he went along for the ride. “I was really big into ‘Iron Chef’ at the time, and when I walked into the center, I saw three stations and espresso machines,” he says.

“There was an emcee, there were people everywhere, people enjoying coffee, and there was this competition that I just had to be a part of,” he says.

When he competed the next year, he placed near the bottom of the rankings. “That made me realize I didn’t really understand my position as a coffee professional. I wanted to learn as much about being a barista as possible. I started coming to Counter Culture, taking classes like this one,” that he’s now teaching.

“I learned a lot about coffee.”

The following year, he won the regional competition. His boss gave him more responsibility over training the staff, and eventually a job opened up at nearby Counter Culture. The company moved him to wholesale customer service 10 years ago.

A champion’s ode to Outkast

Butler’s winning drink is the “SouthernPlayalisticCadillacCoffee.”

Butler won the southeast regional championships five times before winning the US championship in 2016 in Atlanta, with his Southern-themed signature drink, “SouthernPlayalisticCadillacCoffee.”

A spring-inspired ode to his Southern roots and the 1994 Outkast album, “Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik,” that inspired his love of Southern hip-hop, Butler’s drink recipe is a sublime combination of chilled Finca Nuguo espresso, magnolia flower simple syrup and hibiscus whipped up with nitrous oxide in a whipped cream charger, served in beer snifters brushed with lemongrass.

The lemongrass doesn’t add acidity to the drink, but adds the perception of acidity, to “fool your palate into thinking there’s a beautiful lemon note,” he says.

Butler isn’t simply enjoying the championship ride. Now he’s taking his expertise and helping to train the baristas who could be the next generation of champions.

Butler worked with Shane Hess, general manager at Jubala Coffee in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, to perfect Hess’ routine in the 2017 competition. (Jubala is a Counter Culture wholesale client.)

As Butler did before him, Hess created his own drink, which he made as part of his 15-minute public presentation at the competition in Seattle. Each competitor has to create three flights of drinks — espresso drinks, milk-based drinks and the signature drink — for the four judges.

The competitors are judged on taste, skill, presentation and even attention to waste.

It’s not just his kindness and teaching skills but Butler’s palate that really makes him stand out, says Hess, who made it to the semi-finals in Seattle.

“Whenever we work together with the coffee, he’s tasting it and describing what it tastes like,” says Hess. “It’s a big part of the competition, being able to accurately describe beverages you are serving the judges.”

What’s trending in coffee

Back at the cafes where many customers are getting their daily fix, most espresso shots will get mixed with milk, hiding some of a roasted coffee’s flavor profile.

But increasingly, customers want to know more, and Butler credits Starbucks with launching the movement.

“A lot of people give Starbucks a bad rap, but Starbucks started it all,” says Butler. “They started removing that veil of secrecy. They were open about how they were sourcing coffee. They were open about how they were roasting coffee. They were providing a great service and experience for that coffee consumer.”

Now customers are more likely to be interested in where their coffee comes from, and Butler is happy to provide that information from around the world.

“Currently we’re drinking Southern Hemisphere coffee, so coffees from South America, coffees from Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Papua New Guinea,” Butler says.

“As we get into the spring, we’ll start to see those coffees fade away, and we’ll see the Northern Hemisphere coffees arrive — your Central Americans, your Ethiopian coffees. We’ll enjoy those from spring to summer and early fall, and then we’ll see those southern hemisphere coffees return in the fall throughout the winter.”

And it’s not just regions that interest customers anymore. The current focus is on single origin coffees and fair trade practices that benefit farmers, who often don’t even drink the coffee grown on their farms.

Cafes and their customers want to know what the farmers are doing and how they are doing it, he says.

“Are we paying these farmers a sustainable price for their coffee? They want to know,” says Butler. “We’re moving in a direction that’s going to be amazing for coffee farmers to be sustainable and continue producing great coffee.”

Traveling to the source

Making coffee in Brazil for coffee farmers.

After his US win and fourth place finish in the World Barista Championship in June, Butler got more opportunities to follow coffee to its source.

In July, he went on an Ally Coffee trip to Brazil with the US competition’s other top baristas, brewers and roasters to make coffee for local farmers who had never tasted the finished product.

Ally built a deck “in the middle of the coffee plants and brought in a roaster and espresso machine,” he says. “We roasted and prepared coffee for the coffee pickers and the farmers. We also had a latte art challenge and the Brazilian farmers judged.”

While farmers and coffee professionals are increasingly sharing information, farmers rarely get to go to the United States and see what Butler and other coffee professionals do with the coffee.

“A lot of farmers don’t drink their coffee,” he says. “This is a cash crop, so they’re exporting. Once they export it, then they start their harvest all over again, and they’re not tasting what they’re exporting.”

That mean they don’t always know the difference between picking the coffee when it’s perfectly ripe versus a little too soon.

“It’s really amazing to see this, and for us to have one on one relationships with farmers,” he says.

In Ethiopia, a mecca for coffee professionals, with more than 2,000 different varieties of coffee, he returned to the essence of coffee flowers in February.

Coffee flowers turn into cherries, not beans, and they don’t all ripen at the same time.

“When I was in Ethiopia, I was standing in a forest, a natural forest, where coffee grows in the wild,” says Butler. “It was coffee blossom season, and it was so fragrant, it was almost overpowering. It was beautiful.”

The power of coffee and community keeps Butler learning and teaching about his favorite subject.

“We’re always pursuing that perfect cup,” he says.

“I don’t think that perfect cup exists, but as long as we’re striving and setting goals to achieve perfection, everything that happens on the road is going to be awesome.”

If you go: Counter Culture Coffee has “Tastings at Ten” every Friday morning at 11 locations around the United States. Many training centers also offer home brewing classes.