In October 2015, the Cafe Imports Barista Origin Trip took a half dozen or so lucky competition baristas to Colombia for a whirlwind tour of coffee farms, festivals, and horseback rides. Sprudge embedded reporter Emily McIntyre interviewed each of the champion coffee professionals for a series of exclusive spotlight features.
Some baristas spring from nowhere and win a regional trophy (Radames Roldan, we’re lookin’ at YOU!) but others make themselves, slowly, with countless hours of practice and trial and error like no man’s business. Such a barista is Sam Lewontin, who’s been part of the competition circuit since 2011, winning Northeast regionals in 2013, taking 2014 off to judge, and cruising to fourth place in the US Championships in 2015. Originally from Seattle, Lewontin is half of the “Sams” (with the inimitable Sam Penix) who helm Everyman Espresso in New York City.
We took the chance to ask some questions that had been niggling at us, like what’s the deal with rent in Brooklyn, where to order a mezcal drink on a Friday night, and the impact of origin travel on coffee work.
What makes your work in New York memorable?
The short, trite answer is: the people. It’s highly likely in New York to be serving or dealing with people who are the best in the world at what they do. And that extends to the people you can talk with on a daily basis, often growing into something more personal or collaborative. We become friends with notable actors, musicians, and people involved with interesting projects, and we become their friends by virtue of providing them with hospitality. We are also lucky to serve many chefs, bartenders, and restaurateurs, who have been an amazing resource to us. There are ways we approach operations that would have taken longer to develop in a different atmosphere.
What’s the worst part of running a business in New York?
The rent. New York is a very difficult city in which to run a small business, for a lot of reasons, including that it’s just extremely expensive. Rent’s steep, building a cafe costs a lot of money because materials and labor cost more and taxes are really high. And then, on top of that, regulatory bodies in New York are somewhere between incompetent and draconian most of the time—lots of the parts of the city are looking for ways to fine you to pay their bills.
On top of that, New York as a city is comprised largely of fairly old buildings without a strong infrastructure, so opportunity costs are much higher with hundred-year-old plumbing, etc. My experience of operating a cafe in New York is this: there’s always something. And you get used to it, like every other business. But I’ve managed shops in other places and think it takes a little longer to get on top of that stuff and react fluidly and confidently here.
You have customers from around the world visiting your shops, with all kinds of expectations for what a drink order should mean. When someone orders a “cappuccino”—what do you serve them? When someone orders a “flat white”—what do you serve them?
They’re the same thing here! Like many shops, we have a series of sizes of vessels in which to put milk drinks, and our milk texture doesn’t really change drink to drink. The correct milk texture has a little to do with what we think is best overall [when it comes to] structuring the drink to convey the right flavors. The flip side of this is that what drinks are called is so heavily grounded in cultural expectation and a big part of our job as baristas is just navigating that expectation to give people what they want. The answer to a drink order is always yes, then you figure out what they want and give them that.
Where should one get a cocktail in your neighborhood? What’s a great evening look like?
Hmm… well, you should walk down the street from our 13th street location and put in your name at Momofuku’s Ssäm Bar. If there’s a wait you should walk next door to Booker and Dax for a cocktail. Afterward if you still want a drink, you have a problem because you’re in the East Village and have a million options.
If you want an all-purpose cocktail, go to Pouring Ribbons, which is lovely and hard to describe because it’s a cocktail bar in the same way our Soho store is a coffee shop. It’s a bar that exists as a bartender’s ideal of what they want to see in bars. If you want an agave-based drink, go to Mayahuel. If you want something bracing and complicated and bitter, go to Amor y Amargo. Possibly the best bar in the country.
How does origin travel impact your work?
Other than obliterating it for ten days? Well, I’m lucky to work with a really extraordinary team who I can walk away from and trust they will represent our shop as well or better than I could, which is a huge stroke of luck. Origin travel impacts my work a lot. Working as a barista and specifically as a manager, the level of detail orientation required to do the job well is extreme, and paying attention to the details for that long tends to blind you to the context of what we’re doing. Which is a problem because one of the beautiful things about this industry is that every step and action has broader implications and helps to tell a story influencing the lives of hundreds of people.
Having the opportunity to come here and see where it all begins, and how the coffee proceeds before it reaches Counter Culture helps to reestablish a sense of perspective as to the actual significance of what we do. Which both gives us a sense of positive perspective and cuts us down to size.
I’ll never forget a moment from this trip, when I stood out of breath with my legs screaming at me on the very top of that steep hill above the house at El Faldon in San Agustin. The world laid out at your feet, and realizing that what you’d just done is the most elemental, banal building block of somebody’s livelihood. This is the environment in which people make their lives and that…is pretty transcendent, at risk of hyperbole.