Sam Lewontin isn’t just any barista. In addition to coming up with inventive new coffee recipes for his patrons, overseeing two coffee shops on downtown’s east side, and adjusting to life in Fort Greene after hailing from the coffee capital of the world — Seattle — he has the titles of North American Brand Ambassador for Krups, and the General Manager of Everyman Espresso to live up to. Downtown caught up with him between cups to get the scoop on what’s brewing.
How did you get into the barista business?
Sam Lewontin: In Seattle, low-rent barista gigs are the jobs that teenagers take in order to convince themselves that they’re not working in fast food. I worked a number of such jobs to pay my way through college, and when I finished my degree, I figured I’d use those years of experience to land myself one last coffee job while I decided what I actually wanted to do with my life. After a couple of pretty revelatory cups of coffee, I knew I was in the coffee business for good.
What are some of the coffee “trends” you’ve seen lately, and where?
SL: We’re seeing more and more drinks, in various forms, using coffee to provide flavors beyond “just coffee,” and showcasing it in contexts beyond traditional milk-based drinks, like coffee lemonade. Many of these drinks draw inspiration from the world of craft cocktails, incorporating ingredients like bitters or fresh juices to complement the inherent flavors of the coffees around which they’re built. Beyond this, I see more and more people understanding and engaging with the differences between different coffees, the coffee’s origin, its variety, and how it’s processed and roasted affect how it tastes.
Do you think the days of a “plain old cuppa joe” are numbered?
SL: Traditionally, people think of coffee as being essentially “coffee-flavored,” and of milk and classic baking flavors, chocolate, vanilla, nuts, and so on as the only appropriate complements to it. There’s a whole world of amazing coffee flavor beyond these preconceptions, though, and a whole world’s worth of ways to build drinks around those flavors. I love opening people’s eyes to these possibilities; it’s why I do what I do, both with Krups and in my shops.
What is your favorite little known fact about coffee that people often find surprising?
SL: This is certainly better known now than it once was, but the coffee “bean” is the seed of a fruit. The same factors that affect the quality of fruit — ripeness, freshness, and growing season, for example — that affect the quality of coffee.
Ditto on being a barista…
SL: Ooh! This is a tricky one. There’s a broadly-held assumption that barista is a transitional job, that we’ll all wind up doing something different eventually. For the best baristas, though, coffee is a career as broad, deep, and varied as any, and more so than most. Many of us have actively chosen this over other paths that might have been more lucrative, but are less fulfilling. We work in coffee because we love coffee.
Have any coffee trends surfaced lately that you’d advice people avoid?
SL: Bulletproof coffee, and by extension, butter coffee in general, is both a scam — from a health perspective — and pretty disgusting. Don’t do it!
Any tips for perking up our coffee at home?
SL: First, use fresh coffee! Coffee remains good for about two weeks after it’s roasted, so buy only as much as you’ll need for that timeframe, and be sure to buy coffee with the date on which it was roasted printed on the bag. Freezing or refrigerating coffee damages it, so store your coffee as you would tea, spices, flour, or sugar: in an air-tight container, in a cool, dry, dark place.
Second, grind your coffee as close to brewing it as possible! Ground coffee goes stale in a matter of minutes, so a good burr grinder — burr grinders grind more consistently than blade grinders, giving you better and more consistent coffee — is the best investment you can make in making your coffee at home tastier.
Third, use filtered water! Water makes up over 98% of your cup of coffee, so better water means better coffee!