If you are a coffee drinker, you may have noticed a growing trend: latte art. It’s when baristas pour steamed white milk on top of the dark brown espresso in such a way that it leaves designs on the top of your drink. It takes a lot of skill to pull off, and now it’s become a competition amongst top baristas. Jed Kim has more.
It’s the final Thursday Night Throwdown of the season in Los Angeles, and hundreds of people have packed into a small coffee shop in Downtown L.A. Baristas from all over Southern California are here to compete.
Jonathen Liu, bullhorn-wielding organizer of the event, writes a list of names on a giant sheet of posterboard.
“That is our tournament bracket. We’ve been doing this since January. This is actually the ninth one we’ve done," said Liu.
There are latte art tournaments all over the country, and each has its own way of doing things. Liu came up with L.A.’s format: each person pays an entry fee. Then, they face off in pairs. Whichever one wins goes onto the next round, and so on until there’s a champion. Normally, the winner would take all the money, but tonight is for charity. Instead, they’re fighting for prizes and bragging rights.
Two competitors stand next to each other at an espresso machine. They don’t pull their own shots. Instead, someone else does that for everyone so competitors can focus solely on steaming and pouring their milk. As the contestants pour the milk, it leaves pools of white color on top. Adjusting the pour affects the way those pools are shaped.
“This style of latte art is called free-pour latte art, meaning you don’t do anything except pour milk into the espresso," said Anne Nylander, one of the judges for the night. “So it makes these interlapping designs that often look like, um, hearts is a really common design. We also have a design called a rosetta, which looks like a flower a little bit or a leaf. And then we also have a pour called a ‘tulip’ which is three hearts or more layered on top of one another.”
The judges make their decisions based on a lot of criteria, such as contrast and definition between the milk and the coffee, also how intricate and difficult the design is weighs heavily.
When the judges point to the winning cup, the crowd erupts into cheers. They’re all packed against the counter, trying to see the designs. Marcelino Martinez is one of them. As a competitor, he’s a little nervous about what he’s seeing.
“Yeah, the tension definitely builds up, you know, seeing everybody, how good they’re doing, and you kind of question yourself," said Martinez. "Then again, you’ve got to get back in your head like you can do it. You know? It’s all about holding your nerves really, more than anything, besides skill set for sure.”
With all this effort going into the art, you’ve got to wonder what it does for the coffee itself. Can you taste a winner? Not really. Liu says he heard the skill described this way.
“Latte art is really like the frosting on top of the frosting on a cake," said Liu. "You know, the cake is gonna taste the same no matter what, but the latte art is kind of just making it prettier. It’s like the piping.”
Still, getting to this level of talent means a lot of coffee-making experience, which generally means better coffee. But tonight’s about the milk, and at the end, one barista is left standing: Pasadena Intelligentsia’s John Martin.
There are hugs and back slaps but no hard feelings among the competitors. It’s all about the community of coffee, which is a widespread community. All the money collected tonight is going to help baristas in New York who lost work because of Hurricane Sandy.