May 11, 2017

Lem Butler – World Barista Finalist

By Zach Mazrim, Cafe Culture China

Many people who don’t understand coffee or the industry still view being a barista as child’s play. Working part-time at Starbucks or the local café dispensing drinks is a job for a sixteen-year old. This usually entails after school shifts or a heavier load during summer and winter vacations. Maybe the part- time work turns into becoming a head barista or manager, but rarely does it become a profession or a career path that persists and propels the barista on to possibly the the world stage. For Lem Butler, he previously held the same idea.

If you don’t know who Lem Butler is, he was the 2016 United States Barista Champion and one of the finalists for the World Barista Championship. He currently works for Counter Culture Coffee in the United States and is stationed at their headquarters in North Carolina, where he handles wholesale customer support, as well as educating in the company’s training centre. I was able to catch up with him in December at Hotelex Guangzhou, where he shared some of his experiences.

Lem describes his start in coffee as an accident. As is common among Americans, he always drank coffee when he was younger, but never understood it until he began working in a café. His first few times working in a café was when he was thirty-three years old, after graduating university and after touring with his band. His start in coffee is unlike many others. After the breakup of his band in 2003, he went in search of a job. At the time, he didn’t even know what the word barista meant. However, the early opening hours of American cafés appealed to him, and he was looking for something short-term to provide a little extra income. Over the next few years he participated in a few competitions, which helped him better understand and keep up with the changing marketplace to better serve his customers.

Not all baristas love competing. It’s not for everyone. Some feel that the competition format has little relationship with how they operate in a café. For Lem, however, he believes that whether in a café or in a competition, there are two essential factors: customer service and a high quality product. That is precisely what competitions focus on. Competitions and café work go hand in hand. With more competitions now than ever, baristas and roasters have opportunities to see and learn from the best, and improve their skills in order to provide the best service and quality possible.

Lem never thought about competing, until one of his coworkers decided to enter a competition and invited him along for support. For the first time, he saw the competition stage. It was then he knew that this was for him and he had to somehow get involved.

But the path to success was not so easy. In Lem’s first regional competition, there were twenty-five competitors and he finished twenty-third. He remembers that experience and emotion as devastating – to have this goal of winning, and then realising you aren’t the best. There is a lot more to learn and improve on. He spent the next several months working very closely with coffee professionals, furthering his knowledge and skill in preparation for next year’s competition, where he placed first and was able to go on to the national competition.

There were other setbacks Lem experienced throughout his coffee career. One of the lowest points he can remember was actually being a general manager. Many people on their own career paths would only dream of this type of position, usually due to prestige or a higher salary. However, managing is extremely different from being a barista. Administrative staff have little contact with coffee and the customers, which was and still is his favourite aspect of working in coffee. To overcome this, he turned to work in the roastery. Despite still being removed from customers, he was able to experience a different facet of coffee. During this time he was able to compete in barista tournaments, which kept him in close proximity to baristas nationwide, as well as worldwide.

Lem believes coffee is all about relationships. Each individual has his or her own unique personality: some are introverted, some extroverted. In the world of coffee, these relationships are bridges connecting the countless places and people together. While coffee farmers and green coffee buyers have their own relationships with each other, so too with distributors to roasters and then roasters to café owners. Lem is certainly not alone in enjoying the barista/customer connection the most. There are numerous lifelong baristas who could not imagine doing anything else. They love their job. They love their café. They love their customers. These interpersonal relationships make the world of coffee so fascinating and can take people on an incredible journey, but within the realm of coffee, these relationships extend beyond the social.
A coffee bean, at one point, was part of a living and growing organism. Like any organic species, it requires nurturing. Many consumers have never visited a coffee plantation and know the level of dedication required for producing and processing coffee. They may not even know which countries grow coffee, or what it looks like before it is roasted and packaged. For farmers, however, they have a special relationship with their crop. It is their livelihood, their culture. Lem remembers his first origin trip to Nicaragua well. Visiting several farms put his job and his passion into the context of a worldwide network. He was able to gain perspective on how all the pieces fit together and the incredible journey that coffee takes from picturesque lots in the mountains to quaint cafés on the corner.

During university, Lem studied Latin American politics and learned a great deal about the history of some of the places he visited. He recalls reading about the Iran-Contra affair and the period of political turmoil in Nicaragua. For years, counter-revolutionaries waged war against the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua. In the few short decades since the end of the fighting between the Contras and the Sandinistas, many coffee co-ops have formed. Within these co-ops, farmers can still be seen supporting their own political views with flags or insignias on their clothing. Despite previous differences and some even being enemies, these men and women have found a connection through coffee that allows them to work together for everyone’s benefit. These are the powerful stories and experiences that Lem has found and are abundant within the world of coffee. The people and their backgrounds are so vast, so diverse, and getting a total picture of what coffee is all about has been a truly eye opening experience.

Even the journey that coffee takes from the vacuum-sealed bag to the cup is intricate. Any barista can tell you the steps necessary to make a cup of coffee. Being a barista is hard work. On one hand you must be totally focused on producing a superior beverage, and then on the other you must be 100% engaged with your customer. Lem’s motto has always been “Quality Service; Serving Quality”. This summarises the barista’s task perfectly and what he loves most about his profession. He admits that it isn’t for everyone. He knows that some people’s dreams of opening a café or being a champion barista will not be easy. However, Lem has a word of advice to those new to the industry, or baristas and café owners who are struggling:
“If it’s easy, don’t do it.”

One should be challenged, and maybe even experience failure. It then makes you appreciate the moment when you do succeed. There are obviously many factors to success, and success is defined differently, depending on whom you ask.

Sometimes coffee shop employees can become too focused on producing a fantastic cup of coffee and viewing success as having the best tasting espresso or latte. Success to Lem is people-oriented. He describes people as creatures of habit. He enjoys seeing the same faces every morning and building a relationship with them. Many of his customers reside near the café, and he knows their drink order before they get to the counter. The coffees prepared are the links to his customers and their lives. Although he may only have twenty or thirty seconds to interact with someone ordering a takeaway cup, Lem cherishes it and makes the most of it. To Lem, success is not measured by number of cups sold or the number of competition trophies won; it is by the quality of the exchange he and his customers share.

The coffee experience should be an enjoyable one. Now with the recent surge in the number of cafés offering a variety of alternative brewing options, the coffee experience has slowed down, allowing more time for interaction. The relationships that Lem can build with his customers have become deeper, and he thinks that is what makes coffee so wildly popular. People tend to gravitate towards something that is both enjoyable and available. They find a café close to their home or office that has their preferred drink, and they continue going.

Now forty-six years old, Lem still has a few more goals going forward. Getting a taste of the WBC finals was incredible, and he surely wants to go back and win one of these times. He loves the atmosphere and camaraderie amongst fellow competitors. It has been a lengthy career already in coffee, and his biggest desire is to start his own brand. He is truly thankful for his decade long stint at Counter Culture and the opportunities it afforded him. His family is in North Carolina, and he wishes to open a café and roast coffee in the Southeastern part of the United States. It’s where he grew up and, despite all of his travels exploring the coffee network, he wants to share his service and product with those close to home.
He wants to focus his energy on his own café and his own brand to propel the coffee culture in the Southeast forward. Look out for Lem Butler and what he will be doing in the months and years to come.

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