Jimmy Butler wants you to boo him at barista contests

Jimmy Butler’s “Big Face Coffee” may have started as a joke inside the bubble of the NBA pandemic, but that feels like a million years ago now. What started with a French press and fleece stars with overpriced coffee has now grown into a thriving empire, complete with specially sourced beans, merchandise and now its own ice cream.

This week, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream announced that it was collaborating with Big Face Coffee on a limited-edition affogato flavor, a blend of vanilla ice cream with single-source Ethiopian beans provided by Big Face. I had the opportunity to sit down with Jimmy Butler and learn how coffee has become a huge part of his life, and what his dream is to be booed from an arena while competing in a barista competition.

The motivation for bringing good coffee to the market is twofold for Butler: “I feel like I’m a perfectionist and I want to be the best at everything”, he says, “in coffee it’s no different”. But there is also a larger, more sentimental part to his mission. For a brand that started in cloistered, pandemic-forced circumstances, he sees coffee as a way to heal in a post-isolation world. “More than anything, it’s about bringing people together. Forcing them to sit down and have a nice cup of coffee or a scoop of ice cream – find what they have in common and show them as much love as you can.”

Part of the success of this process is accepting that he is not an expert. Butler loves coffee, and it’s a great passion of his life – but he admits he still has a lot to learn. “I have a phenomenal team that points me in all directions,” he says when asked how single-source Ethiopian beans were chosen for the ice cream flavor. “I don’t know as much as I think I do,” says Butler, but while he remains humble, the process has turned him into a coffee expert in his own right. There’s an obvious passion as he’s telling me about the peach, jasmine and white grape notes he tastes in select beans — and how he thought it would work with vanilla ice cream.

One of the most notable things is that despite running a premium coffee brand, Butler is fine if you just drink gas station junk. He won’t judge you. “I don’t think there’s a bad cup of coffee, I don’t. As long as you’re drinking coffee, as long as you’re enjoying it – that’s the way to go.” That said, he also wants to introduce people to different styles of coffee, ways to prepare it, and he’s a perfectionist when it comes to that.

Butler tells me he’ll spend hours making lattes, trying to perfect his pouring technique, not unlike a player who spends hours at the gym working on his shot. He also acknowledges that he ruins the coffee he makes every day, at least in his opinion, because his pouring game still isn’t consistent. “I’m not going to lie to you,” jokes Butler, “I’m not very consistent about this. I haven’t had two of the same cups of coffee when I’m doing this, but it’s trial and error.” That passion has already converted his teammates.

Butler tells me that his involvement in the coffee world has turned every Miami Heat player into serious coffee drinkers now — but part of that is his role as team leader. Butler makes time for each member of the Heat, whether in the morning, afternoon, or between practices, inviting them to sit down and have coffee with him (made by Butler, naturally) to talk, bond, and discuss their lives. “Let’s talk about what’s to come when it comes to the game, how everyone is feeling, what matters to them, how their bodies are feeling.”

This is all very well, but make no mistake: coffee also offers Butler new opportunities. “It really gave me a new way of talking trash to people, people who truth know how to make this latte art.” Butler loves to approach a barista and challenge them to a coffee showdown. “I talk like I know what I’m doing, and I feel humiliated every time,” he laughs, “but I love it. I have to go back to the drawing board and try to do what they just did. It gives me something to fight for.” Butler’s morning cup of coffee is now not just a way to start the day, it’s “working at his craft” as he puts it, and he loves being able to make coffee for the whole family, taking orders like a barista at home, and being able to do anything people want off the top of your head. It’s a way to practice, but also to show love — and Butler says he loves serving people his favorite cup of coffee.

As for Butler himself, it’s an easy answer when I ask what his glass is. “White, no doubt, oat milk – sign me up. Each time. For the rest of my life. Any time of the day, I drink before bed, I drink 10 times in a row.” I’m surprised by his response. As an Australian, I’m used to the flat white (one shot of espresso, two shots of milk) being a must-have style, but I tell Butler I’m surprised by his choice because it’s not common in the US. “EXACTLY!” he shouts happily, “Do you see what I’ve done? A lot of people in America still don’t know that.” He tells me he’s excited to go to Australia, not just for the sights, but because he’s heard that any coffee shop can make him a flat white without asking what it is. This summer, he’s traveling with his family to New Zealand and Australia, and he’s already mapped out the coffee shops he wants to visit while he’s there, or places he’s heard about.

One thing is for sure: Butler’s love of coffee is second only to basketball when it comes to his professional life. At 32, he still has a lot in the tank when it comes to the NBA, but I ask him if when his playing days are over, we’ll see him donning an apron and taking his competitiveness to the world of barista contests.

“I want to do this now!” Butler says enthusiastically: “I should probably copyright this… ‘Big Face Barista Brawl’ no fights, no fights – just plain milk art. No time to practice, you go now. I want in because I just want to be booed off stage. I feel like I need this in my life. Please boo me, because it’s going to be really bad.”

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