The Long Road of Counter Culture's Lem Butler to the United States Barista Victory | Food
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Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Long Road of Counter Culture's Lem Butler to the United States Barista Victory

Posted by on Thu, Apr 21, 2016 at 11:07 AM

click to enlarge Lem Butler, doing work... - PHOTO COURTESY OF COUNTER CULTURE
  • Photo Courtesy of Counter Culture
  • Lem Butler, doing work...
In 2003, after graduating from UNC, Lem Butler started a band. The band broke up, and he needed a job.

So Butler responded to an advertisement in the Daily Tar Heel for a job as a barista at the on-campus shop, Daily Grind. He wasn’t a coffee drinker, didn’t even know what a barista was, and almost went home after first going to the wrong coffeeshop. But this past weekend, Butler, who works in customer support at Durham's Counter Culture, won the 2016 United States Barista Championship. He will represent the United States in the World Barista Championship in Dublin, June 23–25.

“I’m on cloud nine,” he says. “It was an honor to be considered one of the top six baristas in the country [in the final round], and I would have been happy just getting a sixth-place trophy and going home. It’s more than being the best barista—it’s an opportunity to give back to the industry.”

And the industry’s done a lot for him to get him to this point: Butler got that job at the Daily Grind more than a decade ago and supported a fellow barista at the regional championships shortly thereafter, where the equipment, judges, and atmosphere impressed him. The following year, he entered the competition himself and placed twenty-third out of twenty-five. Not satisfied with that low showing, he began working closely with the staff at Counter Culture, which supplies the Daily Grind’s coffee, and the following year, he took home first place at the regional competition.

With that win came more responsibility at work, including a trip to Nicaragua to learn about coffee farming and an increasingly deeper understanding of what the coffee industry entails. He joined Counter Culture’s staff in 2007 and started out by bagging beans. Now, he trains baristas, teaches classes, and provides customer support. He’s won the Southeast Regional Barista Championship five times (the most in competition history) and competed at the national level seven times.

click to enlarge ...to get the trophy - PHOTO COURTESY OF COUNTER CULTURE
  • Photo Courtesy of Counter Culture
  • ...to get the trophy
“It’s my time to give back to the industry as much as possible, whether that’s inspiring or training newer folks in the competition circuit or in the coffee industry, or tying the loop between coffee farmers and baristas,” Butler says.

At the U.S. Barista Championship, Butler and the other contestants had to prepare twelve drinks in fifteen minutes: four cappuccinos, four espressos, and four signature drinks. Four sensory judges evaluated the drinks on taste, while two technical judges kept an eye on things like wasted materials and dosing techniques.

Butler used Finca Nuguo in his drinks, a Gesha variety of coffee from Panama, which Counter Culture roasts. The coffee is known for its strong jasmine notes, lime acidity, and fruity sweetness. For his signature drink—which he brilliantly dubbed “SouthernPlayalisticCadillacCoffee"—Butler blended chilled shots of the Finca Nuguo espresso with magnolia flower simple syrup, dried hibiscus flowers, and nitrous oxide. He served the drink in snifters rimmed with lemongrass. One of the judges gave him a six, the highest possible score, for the drink.

“It took me two months to come up with that,” Butler says. “I always have amazing ideas for drinks, but once I make them, they taste like garbage. You have to find the perfect ratio of ingredients. You don’t want it to be too sweet. You want it to be coffee-forward.”

Butler will be competing against about fifty other baristas in Dublin. An American has only won twice in fifteen years of competition. Whether or not Butler will reprise his winning drink at the World Championship remains to be seen. He says he may visit the farmer in Panama soon to talk shop about beans and see if he has more Finca Nuguo available. Though his drink isn’t up for purchase anywhere, Butler says that if he decides to stick with it for Dublin, he might do some test runs for the public. Perhaps that will happen at the grand opening of Counter Culture's new facility near downtown Durham, slated for April 30.

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