Counter Culture Coffee


“This is about relationships. It’s not about how much coffee we can put out there in the world.”

– Lem Butler, Counter Culture Coffee employee and national barista champion

by Jessie Ammons

photograph by Christer Berg

It’s not every day you meet a national champion, but around here, it’s as simple as grabbing a cup of coffee. You may be served by Lem Butler, who by day works in wholesale customer support at Durham-based Counter Culture Coffee, and by night and weekend is a renowned barista. After winning the U.S. Barista Championships in April, he earned fourth place in the World Barista Championships in Dublin in June.

Butler, who can sometimes be found behind the coffee counter at Jubala, training the baristas at Joule, or at a latte art throwdown at Bittersweet, didn’t set out to become a competitive barista. After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill, the Raleigh native “saw an ad for a barista position starting at 6 a.m.,” he says. “I didn’t know what a barista was, but I was a morning person so I thought I’d go for that early shift.” His post-grad stint at an on-campus coffee shop soon “turned into this rabbit hole career in coffee.”

He was driven by the people at first: “I kept meeting these coffee geeks who knew so much more than I did. That’s what kept me coming back … You continue to build and re-hash those relationships.” As he traveled to trade shows, he learned about barista competitions, too – and he was good at it. Competitors make 12 drinks in 15 minutes: four espressos, four cappuccinos, and four signature drinks. They’re judged on the taste and appearance of their drinks, as well as their overall performance. “It’s kind of like fine dining … You treat the judges like the top customers in your cafe, and you create an experience for them.”

With competitions satisfying his cafe service fix, Butler entered another side of the industry when he joined the Counter Culture team in 2007. There, he maintains and discovers wholesale customers and farmers. The exclusively wholesale coffee roaster was founded and is still based in Durham, where it supplies a slew of cafes across the country, including local spots Jubala Coffee, Sola Coffee Cafe, The Morning Times, Joule, and Bittersweet. “We want to be sure their philosophy fits our philosophy,” Butler says of the shop-roaster rapport. “We’re looking for relationships we can continue to grow with, and vice-versa.”

That means Butler often steps in behind the bar to pull an espresso or pour a latte, working side-by-side with shop employees. “I’m a better coffee professional and I understand coffee more now. But there’s always more to learn.”