We’re just a few short weeks off Lemuel Butler’s exhilarating first-time win at the 2016 United States Barista Championship, but the stokedness has not dissipated—Lem Butler’s victory is the feel-good coffee story of 2016. And while it’s still too early to make World Barista Championship predictions just yet, the excitement around Butler’s chances at the global tournament is palpable.
With the dust settled following his remarkable win, we sat down with Lem Butler for a wide-ranging post-victory chat. Sprudge spoke with the esteemed barista competitor and lifelong coffee professional with Counter Culture Coffee about what made this year different from the rest, what lessons he’s learned over the seasons, and how it feels to be a role model for the next generation of American barista competitors. We also learn a bit more about the coffee he used to win USBC—from up-and-coming Panamanian producer Jose Gallardo—and get a glimpse into what’s coming next as he prepares to represent the United States at the 2016 World Barista Championship in Dublin, Ireland.
￼Humble, hilarious, and always candid, Lem Butler spoke to Sprudge co-founder Jordan Michelman by phone from Durham, North Carolina.
Why was this the year you won?
Dude, I have no idea, other than I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better with every competition because of the judges. The judges feedback—as humbling as it is —is so valuable at the end of a competition, and so I force myself to go talk to the judges about what I did right and where I could have done better. I’ve always taken the judges feedback year after a year, whether I won a regional or not, and used that feedback the following season. In theory, I guess that just makes me a better competitor and coffee professional with each passing season. But this year specifically? I don’t know.
I felt like everything was kind of new this year, with the changes to the qualifying round, and I didn’t know what to expect, but I just wanted to compete in nationals—so whatever kind of routine for the qualifier was different from the nationals. I put a lot into it, but wasn’t 100% behind the coffee in the qualifying round, so changing coffees was very important to me for nationals. The coffee I chose, I met the farmer last year, and the coffee is amazing—so I really felt like I was behind that coffee 110%.
But to be honest man? I felt like I was unprepared this year. With kids and my job, it was really tough to find time to practice, and our HQ is moving our entire facility in the middle of all this. So I felt going into Atlanta that I wasn’t really prepared, and I was super nervous with that semifinal round. Looking back, I don’t know what it was that put me in finals, but I do know that was my goal, because I had never done it before. And once I was in finals it was smooth sailing, it was gravy. I had accomplished what I wanted to do. I would have been happy with the sixth place trophy. When they called me up for the final six, I felt like I already won!
For Dublin, will you be competing with the same coffee or different coffee? And will you revamp your routine?
Well, it’s funny. I thought there was enough coffee for me to compete with for Dublin, but when I got back and I talked to our head roaster and coffee buyer, they were like, “The coffee’s gone”—but then Jose called and said he just milled the last of his harvest, and I could go down and taste these eight lots of coffee he’d separated for me. So now on Monday, I’m flying down to Panama and we’re gonna taste coffees with Jose and fly back with some coffee for competition!
So yeah, it’ll be the same coffee, just a later pick—it’s like the second to the last pick of Finca Nuguo from Panama. For the routine, I think I’m gonna just keep going, tightening the whole thing up—the judges gave me incredible feedback, and I had judges offer to fly out to Counter Culture and offer to help me with places where I lost points, and I’m gonna take them up on it. I want to just tighten everything up as much as possible and get that coffee tasting even better.
The coffee producer, Jose Gallardo, I was going to ask if you and him were close but you kind of already answered that!
Haha, yeah, we’ve been talking together the whole time. During the competition he was racing to his house to catch semis on Livestream, and messaged me right after to tell me it was awesome and wish me good luck, you know, sending me Facebook messages. And then he Facebooked me again when I made it into finals congratulating me. For the Finals round his whole family watched the presentation. They even sent me this picture of it.
I’d even had some contact with him before I competed this year because he pretty much told me about the coffee last year, and then filled in some blanks while I was practicing up for Atlanta. There was a lot of contact—social media is amazing how it has shrunk the world a little bit and let us communicate with folks who we might not have otherwise been able to reach out to.
Year after year, you always have the great names for your signature drinks—this year’s was “SouthernPlayalisticCadillacCoffee” like the Outkast record. Where did that start?
When I started competing I had no idea how competition worked, and I placed like 23rd out of 25 in my region. This was back in 2005, a time when everybody named their sig bevs, but I didn’t know it was a thing, so I didn’t name mine that first time. But the following year, when I won regionals for the first time, I named my sig bev “The Good Morning” because it was like, a drink with maple syrup and steamed milk and cinnamon. And from then on I just kept doing it—naming sig drinks for competition—even as other people phased it out and stopped naming their drinks, I just kept doing it, and then eventually people started asking me, you know, “Oh, what are you gonna name your drink next year?‘’—and that’s cool.
I’m glad you caught that, the Outkast thing, because some people didn’t get it, but yeah, it’s their first album, we were in Atlanta, I thought that was cool.
So for the qualifying round, they were only taking one person per company, and there were two of us from Counter Culture that really wanted to compete. Corey Reilly up in New York, he really wanted to do it, and so I was like “Okay, go ahead, you can be from Counter Culture.” And then I checked with the SCAA and was like, “Hey, can I compete on behalf of my buddy’s company?”—that’s Verity Resins, which is like a plastics recycling company. He buys all this plastic, breaks it down, resells it, and he’s got a plant in NC and a plant in Costa Rica, and he’s been trying to set up one in Jamaica. Me and him have been going to Jamaica for like 13 years together, and he wanted to give back by setting up this plant, creating jobs, and the profits of the plant he’d put back into the region in the form of a music school. So we started going like 3-4 times a year, going down there helping out, trying to get this set up—and so when the qualifier came around, I figured, you know, I do all this non-profit stuff under Verity Resins, why not use that? And the SCAA said “sure” and that’s how I competed for regionals.
For nationals, I submitted paperwork to formally request they change my competitor info back to representing Counter Culture, but…I guess they didn’t get it? I had even submitted a new competition photo and everything, but when I got to nationals, none of that was there. It was so weird! Like half the stuff I had, like my competitor’s entry badge, for example, said Counter Culture on it, but then my table said Verity Resins.
I was like “oh no”—but just kept my head down and focused on competing. Then when I won, some folks from the SCAA came up to me and said, “Hey, were you violating rules, trying to change your company name without telling us?” And I was like—“No man! I filed this paperwork in!” There was some confusion, but they accepted that I sent them all the info, there was no violation, and now it’s all good.
You won the event this year but you’ve been competing for more than a decade. Do you look back and have like a “favorite” routine?
To be honest, I like the fact that I lost my first competition really bad. If I had placed 7th or 8th that first time, I don’t know if I would have had that fire to put my all into it going on from there. Placing 23rd my very first year—this was the second ever Southeast Regional in February of 2005—it really humbled me. I remember walking into that competition thinking, “I’m a baller, everyone loves me at my shop, and I know I’m gonna win.” I remember the prize was like a one-group red Astoria espresso machine, and I just knew I was going to win it. And then it was so humbling, to place 23rd out of 25th. It put this fire in me. I remember going home and reading the rule book through twice. I started hanging around Counter Culture all the time after that, pestering people to help me out and teach me how to be better. My milk sucked, I needed help—I just worked my ass off after that to try and be better.
So that first routine is really one of my favorites. And then, of course, winning a few weeks ago…I mean, I’m still on cloud nine, like I can’t believe it.
That’s cool you go back to 2005 for your favorite.
Dude, I was scooping foam on my cappuccino! It was rough. My sig bev was like a frozen mocha—not even chocolate, but white chocolate with blueberry syrup.
That sounds pretty good!
It was! It was like candy, it was sweet as hell! I used this like liquid ice cream base we had in the shop, and some white chocolate powder and blueberry syrup, and then some ice and espresso! That was my first sig bev.
So what do you say to the rookies trying to break in to this game?
There were some great first-time national competitors this year! My man Marcos Iglesias, from Durham, he did such a good job, and there were lots more. I would say, you know, as advice, to just keep on it—and read your rules. There were people in qualifiers who got zeros on certain scores and that’s because they didn’t follow the rules for their drinks. It breaks my heart, but it’s like you gotta read the rules, man. Focus on the rules and do your run-throughs.
Barista competitor, coffee professional, and founder of The Chocolate Barista Michelle Johnson pointed out on social media that in the fourteen years of the USBC’s existence, you are the first black US Barista Champion. Johnson wrote that you are “changing the game, paving the way for coffee professionals like me to step it up” and says that you are “a role model for baristas of color to look up to.”
I am all about inspiring baristas on the come up. I had my heroes in the game—they weren’t necessarily people of color, but they inspired me the most. Peter Giuliano back in the day, Cindy Chang (now Ludviksen)—these were huge inspirations for me. Competitors like Jared Truby, Chris Baca, Pete Licata—those cats were just awesome to me. Also Stephen Rodgers, an ex-Intelli competitor—he was the first out-of-region competitor I ever met, and he was dropping all kinds of knowledge on ’em. It was these cats who were my inspiration.
If I inspire people like Michelle, it’s awesome, it’s cool as hell, but as far as people of color are concerned, there weren’t really any competing back in the day when I started out, with the exception of maybe, like, Jay Caragay. He’s another cat—he brought all this energy and funk to the competition.
I’m in it for that working barista because that was me. And if I can inspire folks to compete and be better at their craft, I’m all about it.
Coffee culture is starting to open up a dialogue about gender equality. As a role model, do you see a similar opening for dialogue around issues of race in specialty coffee?
I’m not gonna deny I’m a role model, and I say yes, let’s open that conversation up together. But something you need to understand: I grew up in a time where, when my family moved from Boston to North Carolina, we were the “whitest” people in the neighborhood. So I grew up with that. And my dad has always told me, you know, “Life’s a bitch—but don’t let that influence how you look at yourself and your direction. Don’t let that bring you down.” My father didn’t give me any slack. and so now, I don’t pull the quote unquote “race card” when I feel like people might be holding me down, if that’s even a thing. I just take it like he said it: life’s a bitch, I gotta move forward, and I can’t let anything keep me back.
Some of these conversations, I’m trying to find the right words how to answer them. Because I don’t want to cause this war of words about how “there’s no black people in coffee” or something like that. Because they are here, they just aren’t competing yet, and maybe competition isn’t their thing. Or maybe that can change, and people will get inspired and step it up.
It’s tough—I’m all about open dialogue, and if people want to talk about these issues, we can talk about it, but it’s not ever been something for me that felt like I needed to overcome. I need to overcome my own issues more than anything, and that’s about me getting better at my craft.
You’ve thanked a few people through this interview, and as a last question, I just want to know if there’s anybody else you’d like to thank? Let’s hear it: the everybody shout-out.
Oh man, there’s so many people though! First, I have to shout out Jose Gallardo and his family for making such an outstanding coffee. Kyle Ramage for his amazing palate; Kyle has been my unofficial coach for USBC and he’ll be my official coach for WBC. His boss, Gary Horne from Mahlkonig, that guy has been down with Lem Butler since 2007, when he didn’t know me from a stranger. Kyle Tush for roasting the ￼coffee. Counter Culture for mad support since I was just a barista at The Daily Grind. Katie Aldworth up in DC for making my ceramics. My lifetime partner Sarah Butler—she’s been at every competition, polishing wares and keeping me sane. Oh, and of course, Jane Brown from the Daily Grind for giving me my start. I didn’t even know what a barista was when I got that job. And I think that’s good!
I’d say it worked out okay. Thank you Lem!
Photos from in this article are by Charlie Burt and Kate Beard, sourced from Sprudge Media Network’s coverage of the 2016 US Barista Championship. This coverage was made possible by direct support from Urnex Brands, Nuova Simonelli, and KitchenAid Craft Coffee Brewers.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.