Secrets of A Barista Competitor: Lem Butler Gets You Focused

In this series, we’ll share the secrets of barista competitors. From choosing a theme to how to set a practice schedule, we’ll talk to seasoned competitors about how to compete smartly, efficiently, and effectively.

For the amount of work, practice, and dedication preparing for barista competition requires, sometimes the hardest thing to do can be to stay focused. As you dial in your espresso, you might suddenly have a great idea for a signature drink. As you agonize over how to write your speech, you mind may only be on what glass do you want to serve your espresso to the judges. The list of things you have to do to get ready for competition can seem endless.

Lem Bulter of Counter Culture Coffee has competed—a lot—and knows just how much work it is to get ready to compete. If you’ve ever watched Lem, the reigning United States Barista Champion, compete, you know he delivers a clean, uncluttered presentation and makes it look as easy as any regular day in the café. Today, Lem shares some of the ways he’s able to keep himself focused and sharp.

Lem is the current 2016 USBC champion, and placed 4th at the World Barista Championship in Ireland.
  1. Always go back to ‘why’.

Lem is no stranger to the competition spotlight. He is the most decorated barista champion ever, winning versions of barista competitions that don’t even exist anymore (SERBC, anyone?), along with being this year’s U.S. champion. But this year, he asked himself why competition was important to him. “The one thing I did different this year in preparation for the barista competition was to focus on why I wanted to compete. I had a heart to heart with Sasa Sestic in Colombia, and the take away from that conversation was digging into my soul to find the true reason I wanted to compete,” he shares.

A conversation with the 2015 WBC champion Sasa Sestic, third from right, helped shape the direction of Lem’s competition routine.

You have to have a reason to compete, and no reason is better or worse than any other. Perhaps you’re competing to learn, or you’re competing to represent your hometown or café, or perhaps you’re competing to win. It doesn’t matter which reason you choose, but knowing the reason, and drawing on that when you’re lost in preparation or don’t know what next step to take is a helpful motivating tool and will guide the direction of your practice and preparation.

  1. Remember the point of competition.

It’s not until page 15 in the USBC rulebook that the rules state what the judges are supposed to be looking for in a barista competitor. It’s a small section, but the rules outline four traits they want to see in a potential champion: mastery of technical and sensory skills, a broad understand of coffee knowledge, someone who can serve good drinks, and lastly someone who can be a role model within the coffee community. “The barista competition focuses on consistency, waste reduction and finding an ambassador of that collective which is larger than ourselves,” Lem shares.

Lem placed first at USBC this year, but has been an active competitor for over ten years.

So when you’re trying to make a decision about your routine or if you’re unsure of something, go back to what the competition is meant to be about. Do your actions reflect someone who shows mastery of their craft? Do your decisions represent someone who would be a good role model for other competitors and baristas? Continue asking yourself these questions and stay away from ideas that take you away from the point of competition—if it doesn’t achieve any of the standards above, then you don’t need to worry about it.

  1. Is practicing hard? Then you’re doing it right.

“The competition is scary. We are putting ourselves out there to be judged by our peers, by our mentors, by coffee professionals and that is a scary thing, it is a challenging thing, but without challenges we do not grow,” Lem reminds potential and future competitors. It’s easier to get overwhelmed when competition practice gets challenging, but keep in mind that if it’s not difficult, then you’re not growing, and that’s the whole point. “Some of my best competition experiences were the ones I did not do my best so I could see how much further I had to push myself.”

Not winning is not failure–Lem has grown from the failures he’s experience throughout the years, and encourages others to reflect on how to push themselves and grow.

Yes—this is sort of cheesy. But it’s important to remember: you will not always be successful, and sometimes things won’t come together until the 1,000th time you’ve tried them. That’s ok, though it seems like a lot, there’s value to the process of figuring out what you did wrong those 999 times to finally get success. So keep practicing, no matter what, and keep trying. Don’t lose focus because things become challenging.

Next week, we’ll be reporting from CoffeeChamps in Knoxville, but we’ll return the following Saturday with all new stories—all from our international barista community (including some past WBC winners!). So stay tuned and good luck to our baristas, roasters, brewers, tasters, and latte artists competing in Knoxville next week!

About Ashley Rodriguez 413 Articles
Ashley is the Online Editor for Barista Magazine. She's based in Chicago. If you want to share a story or have a comment, you can reach her at

1 Comment

  1. Wonderful piece, thank you for sharing! It is fascinating to get insight into the life of a barista competitor, and equally interesting to see what he considers to be focus points in competition, definitely a lot of the lessons he shares can be applied to a lot of situations. It is very true that you should always go back to the ‘why’, in producing our instant coffee we always make sure that we are loyal to the ‘why’ so that we can ensure our products are the highest quality and are made with care.

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