Sam Lewontin is the general manager of Everyman Espresso in New York City. He's also a regular on the barista competition circuit. In 2015, he won the North East Regional Barista Competition and placed fourth in the US Barista Championships. With all that experience behind him, we were eager to hear his thoughts on the coffee industry as a whole.
Sam was happy to oblige. In this interview, we cover coffee competitions, signature drinks, and his recent coffee farm pilgrimage to Colombia.
Image source: Sprudge
What made you decide to pursue a career in the coffee industry?
I got a bad barista gig when I was 16 and I paid my way through college using a series of not-great barista jobs. When I finished my degree, I figured I would get another job in coffee while I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I had a degree in anthropology and there weren’t a lot of jobs in that.
So I got a job at a café run by an outfit called Equal Exchange. I walked into that job confidently because I’d been making coffee for six years. I didn’t realize that I actually didn’t know anything until they handed me a couple of books and said: 'you’re not going anywhere near that espresso machine until you’ve done all the training and prerequisite education.' And I went: 'wait, what?'
When I started reading I went: 'oh my God, I didn’t know anything!' After a couple of pretty revelatory flavor experiences I went: 'oh, I understand now, I get why people care about this.' That’s when it became apparent that this was something I was going to do for a very long time.
What advice do you have for baristas who are thinking about entering competitions?
To start with, do it. Don’t think about it, do it. I owe my entire career and everything that I have been able to achieve to not doing well in competitions, but to have gone out on a limb and tried them in the first place.
"I’d been making coffee for six years and I didn’t realize that I actually didn’t know anything about coffee."
The first time I competed I made a terrible mess of it, but it doesn’t matter because I came out of that competition ten times the barista I was when I went in. Competing is a transformative experience in so many ways, in terms of your work flow, your ability to communicate ideas about coffee, your attention to detail and your understanding of coffee from end to end. There really is nothing like it. That’s part one. Part two is: don’t do it alone.
Don’t think that because you watch people compete individually that it’s an individual sport. All of my successes in barista competitions have been a result of having an extraordinary team of peers who were willing to help me. So find people who are excited to work on this and share their knowledge, and listen to them.
Image source: Barista Guild of America
I heard you don’t have a menu on the wall at your café Everyman Espresso. Why is that?
It’s funny, for a lot of people the instinct is to just look up for the overhead menu when they walk into a café. That’s not anybody’s fault, we’ve just been designing cafes this way. The instinct is to engage with the menu and not the person. We really wanted to de-emphasize that interaction.
We do have menus. We keep them in the drawer behind the bar and whenever someone walks in we say, ‘Hey, how’s it going? Can I grab you a menu or do you know what you’d like?’ The fact of the matter is, while the menu does encompass some things people wouldn’t think to order, it’s really more guidelines than anything. I don’t want the menu to make people feel like they only have this many choices.
I believe very strongly in the role of baristas as ambassadors for everything that is great about coffee. I want to encourage baristas to interact with guests, as well as encourage guests to engage with baristas. I want to encourage this to be a personal interaction rather than this mechanistic thing, because this mechanistic thing is dehumanizing for everybody.
I read that you like to mix your love of mixology with your love of coffee when making your signature drinks. Could you tell us more about that?
There are a lot of things we can learn as coffee professionals from other hospitality disciplines, specifically from others parts of the food and beverage industry. There’s this whole notion of flavor construction and balance that comes from the world of cocktails that is really fascinating to me, which I think a lot of coffee professionals could do well to adopt.
Some of it came out of that, some of it also came out of this idea of wanting a way to share great coffees that wasn't just either putting milk in them or not putting milk in them. The café menu has currently sort of promulgated in almost every café, and most of the drinks we serve in ours are this way. It’s just the way people thing about coffee.
"I believe very strongly in the role of baristas as ambassadors for everything that is great about coffee."
You can add resonant flavors like chocolate or nutty flavors that are very easy to pair with coffees, which are good and delicious and fine, but they’re also kind of boring. The coffees that I prize and am interested in drinking almost all have a specific and articulate fruit character to them.
A lot of people have a hard time wrapping their heads around those, and they’re not at fault. Most people have just never been exposed to coffees like those. We really wanted to start sharing coffee in a context that made it clear there were flavors people maybe weren’t expecting.
So in 2013, we did a pop-up in Tribeca called Bikini Bar. We sort of convened a board of baristas who were interested in playing around with flavors and drinks that were outside of the standard cannon of coffee. We spent a week tasting coffee and building a bunch of cocktail-style drinks. The simplest thing on the menu was a Shakeorado, using a coffee that has an intense floral component to it and adding some lavender bitters to it. That’s all.
We got more elaborate from there. We had a Kenyan coffee that was pretty tomato-y, so we made a Bloody Mary. One of our baristas made up a specific tincture of herbs and spices and made a syrup out of that, and we made a ton of tomato jam. It was very savory and by far the weirdest thing on the menu, but people loved it.
Awesome! And you recently had a chance to travel to Colombia on a coffee tour. How did you find that?
I have to be honest, when I was on the plane there I was feeling a bit jaded. There’s a lot going on in specialty coffee that signals there are hard days ahead. We’re in a scary financial place as an industry with rising production and supply costs coupled with a decreased willingness of people to pay money for anything because of the current economy. I was very conscious of the challenges we’re going to be facing inevitably in the next five to ten years.
Then we went to a number of coffee farms, and the amount of hope that we saw there, the amount of enthusiasm and drive towards a better future that was evident among the people we visited was incredible, especially the extraordinary results of that drive and passion.
We cut a lot of coffees when we were there and tasted some things that frankly, before the trip, I would have told you were impossible. Things that confounded everything I knew about how coffee can taste and the relationship between making coffees in a highly productive way and flavor. We saw a lot of production methods that frankly people in the States in my end of the business have never even heard about.
It’s just really inspiring, seeing the community spirit and the willingness of people to work together to make their product better because it was better for their livelihoods. I came back with a lot of drive to make what we do here better. Because we create the market and the demand that makes it possible for these people to get paid more for better product. It's how specialty coffee continues to exist. So that was very exciting.