Lem Butler: US Barista Champion

Thirty-six coffee professionals from around the country participated in the United States Barista Championships in Atlanta last weekend (April 14–17), a competition presented by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and the Barista Guild of America. Lemuel Butler, Counter Culture Coffee wholesale customer support and barista trainer in Durham, NC, won first place and was crowned the 2016 U.S. Barista Champion. This the first national win in Butler’s decorated coffee career during which he has won five Southeast regional championships (2005, 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2014)—the most of anyone in competition history. Lem will go on to represent the U.S. in the World Barista Championship in Dublin this year, June 23–25. Lem has been an integral member of Counter Culture’s team in Durham since 2007, training countless baristas and staff in coffee excellence and forging relationships with chefs, cafe owners, and members of the industry.

Samuel Lewontin, general manager and barista at NYC’s beloved Everyman Espresso, placed fourth in the Barista Championship using Counter Culture coffee. This year, 10 baristas competed using Counter Culture coffees, with Lem and Sam making it to the finals.

At the Barista Championship, baristas competed in front of four sensory judges, two technical judges and one head judge as they prepared and served four espressos, four cappuccinos and four signature espresso beverages during a 15-minute race against the clock. Lem competed with Finca Nuguo, a Gesha variety coffee from Jurutungo, Panama, with big floral notes of jasmine, lime tartness and tropical fruit sweetness, that was roasted by Counter Culture’s Kyle Tush. Each competitor’s signature beverage is notably the “canvas” of the competition, where baristas show their creativity and innovation. Lem called his drink “SouthernPlayalisticCadillacCoffee,” a spring-y ode to his southern roots and the Outkast album that first inspired his love of southern hip-hop, comprising Finca Nuguo espresso, magnolia flower simple syrup, hibiscus, lemongrass and nitrous oxide (for creaminess), served elegantly to judges in beer snifters. Lem’s beverages were accompanied by an earnest presentation about specialty coffee’s effects on his life and what he will give in return.

“Twelve years in this industry has done so much for my family and me, and now I’m asking myself, ‘What will I give back?'” Lem said. “I never fathomed that I’d be representing the U.S. at the World Championship, but beyond that I want to inspire others to perfect this craft, to keep competing and never get discouraged.”

“We are so happy for Lem’s well-deserved success,” said Counter Culture President and Co-Founder Brett Smith. “He epitomizes how perseverance and hard work pay off and has led the way for so many in this field to push their limits.”

Counter Culture first received an unsolicited bag of green coffee from Finca Nuguo’s farmer Jose Manuel Gallardo Mendez in November 2014. Roaster Kyle Tush and Coffee Buyer Tim Hill worked with Jose to refine his processing and quality and in a year’s time produced what Counter Culture called “simply the best coffee we sold in 2015.” The particular lot of Finca Nuguo that Lem brought to the US Coffee Championship is a tribute to what can happen through collaboration, dedication and patience—values Counter Culture has been committed to for the past two decades.

Sam competed with a coffee grown by Tito Raúl Quelal in Nariño Columbia that was roasted by Counter Culture’s Kyle Tush. Sam credited the farmer Don Tito’s washed processing and sun-drying for the coffee’s “exceptionally sweet,” “enhanced acidity” and “sparkingly clean” flavors.

The top 12 baristas from a qualifying round held in Kansas, MO, in February earned a first round bye at the US Barista Championship tournament. Open to the public and free to attend, the event also hosted opportunities for attendees to learn more about the world of specialty coffee and to taste coffee from roasters nationwide.