All photos by the author.

Being a Barista Isn't a Dead-End Job, According to the US Barista Champion

“A lot of my old professors were saying, 'This is what you're doing with your degree?’” says Lem Butler, who became the US Barista Champion in 2008.

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Jun 7 2016, 6:00pm

All photos by the author.

At the 2008 US Barista Championship in Minneapolis, Lem Butler brazenly told the four judges he would complete his routine in exactly 14 minutes and 53 seconds. Then he exploded a bottle of honey all over the table, cleaned it up, exploded it again, and finished making the 12 drinks in awkward silence. When he looked up, the clock read exactly 14:53 and the crowd went wild.

These officially sanctioned coffee throwdowns are where the best in the business compete for industry bragging rights and prizes like all-inclusive trips to coffee origin countries. Espresso shots, cappuccinos, and signature beverages are treated with Olympic-level precision. Baristas like Butler lose sleep mentally rehearsing their speeches, and internet bastions of coffee nerdery live-stream the competitions. It's like Iron Chef for coffee, except for one thing: It's ruthlessly boring to watch.

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Lem Butler with his US Barista Championship trophy. All photos by the author.

"It can be dry," says Butler, fresh off winning the 2016 championship. "It can be really dry and mechanical. A lot of baristas are just focusing on what the judges are looking for on the score sheet—they should loosen up a bit." Watching even the most charming competitors is akin to waiting in line for a coffee you'll never get to drink. It isn't a spectator sport, but that hasn't stopped Butler from chasing the championship for 11 years.

On a Friday morning at the Counter Culture Training HQ in Durham, NC, he stands behind an espresso machine like it's a pulpit. In his mid-40s but still rocking long, tight dreads, his even-keeled cadence comes off as warm and charismatic, but just a tad distant. Exactly what you'd want in someone serving you coffee.

A tour group of 30 visitors listens to him recount his recent victory at the US Championships in Atlanta. His coffee of choice was a Panamanian Geisha, an heirloom varietal imported from Ethiopia that commands obscene prices. In addition to making excellent espresso and cappuccino, the flavorful bean was the centerpiece of his signature beverage for this year's competition, the "SouthernPlayalisticCadillacCoffee." The nitrogenated combination of espresso, magnolia flower syrup, hibiscus, and lemongrass paid homage to both Southern flavors and Outkast's first album.

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Baristas at forward-thinking shops like Everyman in NYC and Fleet in Austin have begun incorporating this type of custom drink onto their menus, but back when Lem entered the industry, he had no idea what a "sig bev" was. He didn't even drink coffee, and almost missed his interview for a barista position at the on-campus UNC cafe because he went to the wrong shop. Like many baristas, he just needed a part-time job between touring with his band, a live hip-hop outfit called Sankofa in which he served as the DJ. But with the elevation of coffee to hateable levels of connoisseurship, the position of barista has transitioned from a dead-end job to a foot in the door to a billion-dollar industry.

"Working on campus, a lot of my old professors were saying, 'This is what you're doing with your degree?'" says Butler. "But the barista is just a drop in the bucket of what you can do in this industry. Coffee is one of the biggest traded commodities in the world."

Managing a local shop is no longer the glass ceiling. After becoming GM of the horribly named Daily Grind, Butler left the retail side of things and went back to entry-level wages, bagging beans at Counter Culture with hopes of becoming a roaster. When no roasting position opened up, he entered customer support. His job now entails training the baristas at Counter Culture's wholesale accounts on how to make better coffee, which ranges from no-brain tips like cleaning rancid oils from airpots to fine adjustments in espresso grind. He basically became a coffee coach.

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"I look at training and education as two different things. In shop, training is more how to use equipment. If I can get you away from the distractions of your shop, I can explain the 'why' of brew parameters and coffee-to-water ratios," says Butler.

It can still be hard to shake the "coffee-is-coffee" mentality at some shops, but regardless of the skepticism over floral notes and tomato-like acidity, the rise of the specialty coffee industry means that companies like Counter Culture need skilled employees at every point in the supply chain, from people sourcing beans on the ground in foreign countries to traveling trainers like Butler.

And although the competition circuit is still an insider affair, the notoriety that comes with championships helps open the pocketbooks of investors to fund start-ups like Sudden Coffee, an instant coffee company from former world champion Kalle Freese.

"There's that attitude where you can't make a career out of being a barista. But you're more than just a barista when you invest time in the product and quality customer service," says Butler. "You change from being just a barista to a coffee professional."