As today’s coffee culture becomes more refined and sophisticated, baristas are being held to a higher standard. Making coffee has certainly evolved into a craft and an artform. That’s why the hashtag #coffeeart has really taken off. Coffee mugs act as a barista’s canvas and espresso is their paint of choice.
Like there are competitions for chefs and mixologists to showcase their artistry, the top baristas in the world can compete in championships.
The U.S. Barista Championship is one of the most popular ones. But the baristas aren’t only scored on the taste of the three courses of the espresso-based beverages they prepare, they are judged based on efficiency, customer service, cleanliness, performance, and presentation.
When it comes to coffee mastery, these competitors are anything but the average joe.
The most decorated barista champ in the country is Lemuel Butler, who won the 2016 U.S. Barista Championship with his signature caffeinated beverage known as the “SouthernPlayalisticCadillacCoffee.”
With a flavorful name inspired by the hip-hop group Outkast, the beverage features Finca Nuguo espresso that is paired with magnolia flower simple syrup, hibiscus, lemongrass and nitrous.
Although Butler did not compete this year, he did attend the event where he coached this year's U.S. champion, Kyle Ramage.
We decided to sit down with the Butler to see what it takes to be a barista champion and what advice he has for aspiring ones.
How did your career in coffee begin?
Butler: I started in 2003 by answering an ad in the college newspaper, “The Daily Tarheel.” A cafe independent from the university was looking for help. So, I applied and got the job. I never anticipated being in coffee scene long, but I fell in love with the Specialty Coffee Industry when I was introduced to the Barista Competitions.
I have now competed several times and volunteered several times and found myself in places all over the U.S.. When I won my first Regional Barista Competition, I was invited to Nicaragua to learn about coffee farming, farmer cooperatives, and coffee exporting.
Upon returning to my job at the cafe, the owner (Jane Brown) asked me to rewrite the training manual and lead all the training for the cafe. All the while, I continued to compete but never won a national title.
Eventually, I made the decision to leave the cafe. It was extremely difficult, but I wanted to continue to grow in the industry. So I went over to Counter Culture Coffee, where I got my start there bagging beans. Even as a bagger in production, I continue to compete. It was extremely addictive and I was now a part of an industry that I was thoroughly enjoying.
Later, I volunteered at the 2008 World Barista Competition held in Atlanta and then again volunteered at the 2011 World Barista Competition in Bogota. During that time, I changed positions at Counter Culture Coffee from production to wholesale customer support and training.
I won the regional barista competitions in 2013 and 2014, where I was awarded trips to Kenya and Colombia to dive deeper into understanding coffee farming. After that, I wasn't going to compete any more, but the 2015 World Barista Champion Sasa Sestic inspired me to compete again in 2016.
Sasa is an amazing guy and spending a week with him in Colombia helped me understand that the competition is not about winning, it is about becoming better and better at your craft. That trip to Colombia inspired me to start to make each day better than the last.
So I competed once again in 2016 and won the U.S. National title. Then, I represented the U.S. Specialty Coffee Industry in the 2016 World Barista Competition. Out of 65 countries that competed, I placed 4th in the world. I am still amazed and happy that I didn't drop the ball for the U.S.!
What are you favorite beverages to make?
How many competitions have you won in total?
Butler: I have won 5 regionals and 1 national.
What does it take to be a barista champ?
Butler: Dedication to one's craft.
What advice do you have for aspiring baristas?
Butler: Make each day better than the last. If you have to clean the bathroom, make that bathroom the cleanest bathroom on the planet. If you are on bar, make your drinks better than you made than the day before.
Save your money and apply those funds to improving your skills by volunteering at Specialty Coffee Association trade shows, competitions, while also taking classes that help you understand your craft.
What are some of the trends you are seeing emerging in the coffee scene?
Butler: Cold Brew. Yuck!
What's next for you?
Butler merely responded with a mysterious “hmmm......”