CNN — For Lem Butler, a cup of coffee isn’t just a cup of coffee.
That cup or a single shot of espresso represents a community that reaches around the world.
The winner of the 2016 US barista championship, Butler has traced his favorite beverage back to its origins: From the farmers who grow and harvest the coffee to the company that roasts them to the coffee baristas he trains to prepare the coffee at their cafes for the people who drink it.
“It’s a simple recipe of coffee and water, but it’s a recipe that can be done well,” says Butler. “But most often, it’s a recipe that can be done very badly.”
His goal is to educate people about their coffee, and to help them make it better and enjoy it more.
“We want to really hone in on how much time the coffee and the water are sitting together, so we can pull out sweetness, we can pull out brightness,” Butler tells a recent class of baristas learning about espresso fundamentals.
Butler attended the Specialty Coffee Association’s 2017 US competition in Seattle in April, but he didn’t compete this year. Instead, he coached this year’s US champion, Kyle Ramage, and semi-finalist Shane Hess.
A barista’s barista
By day, the country’s best barista trains other baristas for Counter Culture Coffee’s wholesale clients at the company’s headquarters and roasting facility in Durham, North Carolina. (The company has 11 training centers around the United States, with two more scheduled to open soon.)
Starting off with a tasting of five coffees, he talks about sourcing, the ratio of ground coffee to water, weighing the coffee and other factors that go into a good cup of coffee with his students.
“We can pull out the different nuances that make the coffee what it is, which can be really delicious if we get the recipe right.”
Some baristas attend the introductory and advanced courses before opening their own cafes, while existing clients send new employees to learn the ropes and veterans to get more skills.
Learning from the US barista champion could be an intimidating experience, but company co-founder and president Brett Smith says Butler’s easy personality takes away the stress.
“He has this charisma, and the way he carries himself, so that in no way do you feel like he’s condescending,” Smith says. “On top of that, he’s very skilled in competition but doesn’t flaunt it in a way that’s intimidating. He brings you along appropriately.”
While he knows his product well, which is required, he also has a “laid back and awesome demeanor,” adds Smith.
Becoming a barista without knowing coffee
A musician and political science graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Butler says he didn’t expect to be working in coffee for more than a year.
After a few years of touring with his band and working as a DJ, he applied for a barista job at a coffee shop at UNC without knowing anything about coffee.
When a friend asked him to support him at a regional barista competition in 2004, he went along for the ride. “I was…