The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Thursday December 2nd

Baristas battle for best brews

Correction: Lemuel Butler was said to work at the Daily Grind Expresso Cafe in Efland. He doesn't. He works at the Daily Grind on campus.

Due to an editing error, this article mistakely identied the Daily Grind Espresso Cafe as being located in Efland. The cafe actually is on campus.


The mute black backdrop of Kenan Theatre struck a bright contrast with the gleaming metal of three La Marzocco espresso machines. They purred smugly over the soft, ceramic sound of clinking china, stemmed glasses and antique flatware.


Click here to see a slideshow from the competition.

The third annual Southeast Regional Barista Competition, held at the Center for Dramatic Art Sept. 9-11, had a sense of spectacle that lived up to its host location.

"(The baristas) are creating a five-star dining experience," says Michelle Campbell, barista programs manager for the Specialty Coffee Association of America. "But we still want their own personality to come through."

The 22 contestants were transmitting loud and clear, turning out their spice racks, dishware and whimsy for the event.

In a world of coffee to go, the ceramic clink of cups and saucers is a strange departure from the metal clicks and shouts of a coffee shop during an early morning rush.

Lemuel Butler, who works at the Daily Grind Espresso Cafe in Efland, competed for the second time this year.

"It's more than coffee," he said last Thursday. "It's atmosphere, appearance, interaction with the judges - it's pretty detailed."

Open rounds were held on Friday and Saturday afternoons, and contestants had 15 minutes to make four espressos, four cappuccinos and four specialty drinks.

The atmosphere, appearance and taste of coffee, technical skill, and counter-side manner of baristas was under the scrutiny of seven judges and several onlookers.

One by one, baristas took time to test machinery and arrange delicately folded napkins and menus. Smiling at the judges and pouring sparkling or still water, narrating as they worked, the hours ticked by until six finalists were announced at the end of Saturday.

The list of contestants competing Sunday included Butler and Lena Abed, a barista at Open Eye Cafe in Carrboro and a continuing education student at UNC.

First up on Sunday is Abed, and she grins nervously, spreading a red tablecloth over the judge's table and explaining the Lebanese roots of her specialty drink. Kiva Han, a drink spiced with cardamom, cinnamon and lemon zest, is named after the first coffee shop in recorded history.

"It's stiff competition this year," Abed says later, observing the action on a flat-screen television in the lobby of the theatre.

"It's cool," she adds, "because sometimes I feel a little obsessed (with coffee), and it's nice to know there are other people out there like me."

She's right. Coffee aficionados are in full representation, with baristas from across the Triangle and judges from as far as Clearwater, Fla. appearing for the event.

Groupies and industry insiders mingle as Butler, third up, sets out his long-stem wineglasses.

Four espressos and four cappuccinos later, Butler introduces his signature drink. "The 'Good Morning' is a beverage served not too hot, not too cold," Butler explains.

There's jittery tension in the air both from competitors and an audience wired on three days worth of complementary coffee.

"I did a quick little computation and over the last three days, the judges have tasted 350 espressos - so they'll come down from this around Tuesday or Wednesday," says Brett Smith, president and co-founder of Counter Culture Coffee, host of this year's competition.

For Abed and Butler, the buzz may take longer to fade.

Taking second and first place respectively, the local baristas posed for photographs amid applause and congratulations.

Butler will head to Charlotte in April for the U.S. Barista Championship. "That's a big jump," says Butler, who placed 24th last year, grinning wildly. "And I get to do it again in April."


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