East Village Cappuchampion Aims For Best in U.S.

IMG_2760 copy Sam Lewontin in action.

After countless rehearsals and a victory at the Northeast Regional Barista Competition in February, Sam Lewontin of Everyman Espresso vied for the national title this past weekend. Mr. Lewontin’s regional win afforded him a bye in Thursday and Friday’s preliminary rounds, and he showed up at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center ready to compete on Saturday afternoon.

Saturday’s semi-final was full of strong competitors, including former U.S. champions Pete Licata of Parisi Artisan Coffee in Kansas City and Katie Carguilo of Counter Culture Coffee in Brooklyn, whose coffee producer from El Salvador had come to watch her compete.

IMG_2729 copyKelsey Kudak

When Mr. Lewontin took the stage for the first time since regionals, he brought his boss, Sam Penix, to tears by dedicating his performance to Mr. Penix’s mother, saying she had been a “huge supporter” of their careers even though most didn’t consider being a barista to be a “real job.”

Keeping his nervous energy in check, Mr. Lewontin started his performance by pouring beautiful cappuccinos through shaky hands. He competed with an African coffee from the Mpemba Washing Station in Burundi, the same coffee he had used during regionals. Mr. Lewontin’s signature beverage was also the same: one he created on the fly to “subvert” the judges’ expectations about what they thought his coffee would taste like. At the beginning of his performance, he asked the judges to use a card to indicate what they expected the coffee to taste like based on flavor, body, acidity and aroma. Mr. Lewontin used four of eight possible ingredients like fresh ginger, a malic acid concentrate and prune juice and molasses mist to create one of 16 possible variations of the drink for the judges to taste.

IMG_2730 copyKelsey Kudak

The next day, after beating out Ms. Carguilo and advancing to the final round, Mr. Lewontin appeared relaxed and poised as he took the stage in sharp black pants, white shirt, and slim, black suspenders. He blew kisses to the sizable crowd and, after several deep breaths, started the 15-minute timer and repeated his performance with the crowd roaring in approval at each step.

“This is the 22nd time I’ve done this routine,” he said afterward. “It was as good as it’s ever been.”

IMG_2738 copyKelsey Kudak

Unfortunately, the judges didn’t feel Mr. Lewontin’s coffee tasted exactly the way he had described it to them. He attributed a “hiccup” in supply as a possible reason for his lower score in the final round. “We used a different batch of coffee than we expected to this morning, and it’s possible that having had it open for an extra day dulled it down a little bit,” he said.

In the end, Mr. Lewontin placed fourth, and Mr. Licata took away the title for the second time since 2011. (He finished second last year). Charles Babinski of Glanville & Babinski in Los Angeles took second and Trevor Corlett of Madcap Coffee Roasters in Washington, D.C. took third — just three (out of more than 600 possible points) ahead of Mr. Lewontin.

IMG_2897 copyKelsey Kudak Sam Penix and Sam Lewontin

Mr. Lewontin took the finish as a sign that he still had some “learning to do as a competitor” and planned to take a year-long hiatus to judge competitions and coach. (He’ll also take the trip to Kenya he won in the regional competition two months ago). Though disappointed in the final result, Mr. Lewontin said he had accomplished all his goals for the season and still loved competing. “I tell you what,” he said. “In 2015, that trophy’s going to say ‘1’ on it.”

In the meantime, Everyman’s SoHo shop is serving Mr. Lewontin’s signature beverage in any of the 16 variations of your choice.