2016 WBC Finalist #4: Lem Butler, USA

Lem Butler is among the most beloved and respected coffee professionals in the United States. We are beyond thrilled that the international coffee community is now getting a chance to see his special brand of coffee magic, as well as his charming, authentic, kind demeanor. Lem is one of the really, really, really good guys out there.

Lem Butler, the consummate professional.
Lem Butler, the consummate professional.

He brought a Panamanian Gesha to the competition, a beautiful coffee to be sure. But the story behind the coffee was even more special. Lem told the judges that he recalls the day when a little bag of green coffee showed up at the Counter Culture roastery in Durham, N.C., where he works. Along with some colleagues, he cupped the coffee and, well, he wasn’t all that impressed. But Lem, who has worked in coffee since 2002 when he slung shots at a university cafe, knows his stuff ”he could sense there was something there, something amazing in that green coffee. It just needed some help getting out.

So Counter Culture started working closely with the producer, helping with farm improvements, like the building and installation of raised drying beds, and education, such as teaching pickers to reach only for the ripest and the reddest of  cherries. And in 2015, the proof was in the cup: the coffee won first place in the Best of Panama competition.

Lem was so natural, so relaxed, so unscripted. And it worked, big time.
Lem was so natural, so relaxed, so unscripted. And it worked, big time.

Back to Lem: He has such a vibe of self possession ”his warmth and kindness as a service professional is simply effortless. It’s no surprise, also, to learn he has an extensive music background. He has a rhythm to everything he does, and it’s infectious.

For his performance, Lem didn’t have an overarching theme, rather, he just concentrated on this amazing coffee. He knows it through and through. The story continued with Lem explaining just why this coffee is so sweet: the farm lies on the border of Costa Rica, so the cooler air comes down the mountain and slows the metabolization of the sugars. This is the reason for the intense floral flavors, the lime acidity, and the black tea notes.

Lem gets a last minute pep talk from Nuova Simonelli's Gianni Cassatini
Lem gets a last minute pep talk from Nuova Simonelli’s Gianni Cassatini

I loved the way Lem described his signature drink as having a “milkshake mouthfeel,” and combining magnolia flowers to achieve a dark chocolate, jasmine taste. He told the judges it would taste of chilled cranberry and lemon citrus.

Full disclosure: Lem and I have been friends since 2004, when I met him at the very first Southeast Regional Barista Competition, which he won. He was in many ways exactly as he is now: Patient and kind, content and inquisitive, interested and  interesting. Lem, you rocked it today ”congratulations.


About Sarah 933 Articles
Sarah Allen (she/her) is co-founder and editor of Barista Magazine, the international trade magazine for coffee professionals. A passionate advocate for baristas, quality, and the coffee community, Sarah has traveled widely to research stories, interact with readers, and present on a variety of topics affecting specialty coffee. She also loves animals, swimming, ice cream, and living in Portland, Oregon.