Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Those of you who know me know I am a guy of somewhat limited interests, and they pretty much all revolve around espresso these days.

You all may have heard that I do something called latte art. In specific, you may have heard that I've made a practice out of dominating local latte art competitions. But this is all very ambiguous.

What is latte art? What's the point? How is it applicable? I think these questions deserve a bit of clarification.

So, without further ado, let's just dive right in, shall we?

Latte art is the creation of designs on the top of a latte or a cappucinno using espresso as a canvas and milk foam as a medium. It is a technique used by baristas to add a bit of flair to an otherwise standardized beverage, to differentiate quality-driven, specialty drinks from the sort of ho-hum everyday stuff you might get from the larger chains. The practice began in Europe, in the traditional cafe setting, with baristas using a flick of the wrist to manipulate the foam atop cappucinnos and machiattos into resembling small leaves, or hearts. The practice became more widespread in the early nineties along with the lattes explosion in popularity. As the latte became the drink of choice in America, latte mugs began growing in size, inflating from the traditional 5 oz capp to some 14-16 ounce monstrosities served in vessels that more closely resembled cereal bowls than anything you might drink coffee from.

With all the extra surface area atop these massive drinks, baristas began pushing the limits of latte art creation, pouring increasingly complex designs to fit the larger pouring surfaces.

Latte art sometimes comes under criticism for being superfluous, or vain, but I believe it serves a number of beneficial purposes to the client. First and foremost, the foam that compsoses that perfectly poured rosetta you are about to consume is made up of millions of tiny bubbles, each containing within it the aromas and flavors essences of the coffee below. Soooo, with each sip you are not only tasting the latte, but some of those aromas are drifting upwards into your nose and you are smelling the drink as well, adding extra sensory involvement. At the same time, you can't really pour art unless you have smoothe, velvety foam that feels as good as it tastes when you drink it. Again, extra sensory involvement. So, now you have taste, smell and feel all involved in the drinking process, making the experience much more than simply drinking a hot beverage. Finally, add to all of that the striking visual appeal of a perfectly symmetraical, high-contrast work of art floating atop your latte and the drink is elevated to something more than it once was. A latte with well-poured art is an EXPERIENCE.

Another benefit of pouring art that us baristas love is that it piques the interest of the consumer in what is known as Third-Wave, or Specialty coffee as the future of the business. You see, it's not that we baristas pour art for our sake, but it's very much to emphasize what we believe to be an exemplary product. A nicely-poured design gets people asking how, and why we do what we do, and what it means for the end-consumer. Seriously. Next time you go to a shop, if you notice a rosetta atop your beverage, ask the barista why he chooses to take the extra few seconds to pour art. But be careful what you wish for. The response will likely take much longer than it took him or her to pour the beverage.

Enough of the preamble. Let's delve into how it's actually done.

In order to pour latte art, the barista needs a few things.
1. Fundamentals
2. Tools
3. Time
4. Dedication

Firstly, the barista needs to have his fundamentals down. He needs to pull quality shots, with quality crema. It has been shown that crema is not essential to the creation of latte art, but some good color in the crema makes the end product look more appealing, and less washed out. I'll get more into that later. Also, the barista needs to master the art of foaming milk. The creation of microfoam is essential to pouring, to the extent that some might say it is the most important aspect of the technique. So, break out those shiny new steaming pitchers, folks!

Secondly, the barista needs a number of tools, including a quality espresso machine, a good grinder, a tamper, a mug and a steam pitcher. Let's take beans and milk as a given.

Thirdly, the barista needs time to practice, practice, practice. It takes a making a lot of drinks to learn to steam the proper milk, and to get any sort of muscle memory for the movements of the pour itself. It certainly helps if the barista has a shop to practice at, because you get a lot of practice on any given day of making drinks for customers.

Lastly, the barista needs a passion for creating drinks, a drive for continuous improvement, and thick skin. I say thick skin because it takes a LONG time to get any good at doing this. I've been slingin' spreezy for almost three years now, and I've been pouring art for about a year and a half, and I'll say right now that my art isn't the best out there. In fact, it took me a good six months to pour my first design. That's hundreds of drinks with awkward milky blobs that got served to customers. Thankfully, most of those drinks came with lids to shield the customer from the horrors beneath.

Okay, when you've got your basics down, and you have tools at your disposal, and you've had a lot of practice and you've thickened your skin, it's time to attempt a pour.

Start by pulling some shots and steaming some nice, creamy milk.

Holding your steam pitcher loosely in your fingertips and your mug at a slope in your other hand, begin pouring slowly into the mug towards the edge closest to the pitcher hand.

If any foam rests atop your espresso at the beginning of the pour, move the stream of milk over it to push it back under the espresso in the mug.

As your pour slowly, the milk should be pushing through the espresso and creating a layer beneath it, raising the brown espresso layer up as the mug fills. This is all physics and density, but it is very important. You want to keep the espresso and the milk as separate as possible until the "shake" to maintain high color-contrast for the end design. Keep pouring until the mug is about half full. At this point, lower the steam pitcher all the way to the surface of the liquid, beginning to pour a bit faster as you lower as the pitcher drops.

When you've reached the surface of the liquid, you should be pouring agressively. You should see a little bit of white foam come out of the tip of the pitcher. This is often called the "halo" of foam.

As soon as you see the halo, flex your fingertips rhythmically, swinging the pitcher in a tight pendulem motion, back and forth, back and forth. Every time the pitcher swings upwards, a little stream of microfoam swings out of the tip of the pitcher, creating a continuous line of foam that etches back and forth in a crescent, much like switchback hiking trails on the side of a mountain.

As more milk comes out of the pitcher, these lines will begin to crescent and compress upon themselves. Keep your stream of milk close to the pitcher edge of the mug. As milk comes out it will cause the lines youve pouring to expand backwards, filling the mug up with your design.

Keep in mind that as your mug fills, you should be tilting it back to avoid spilling the liquid.

When the mug is nearly full, slow your pour (but do not completely stop it) and move the pitcher forward, pushing the crescents of foam into each other.

Finish your design by swiping the stream of milk across the newly-compacted lines, towards the far side of the mug. This action will suck in the top of the heart and shoot a tip out on the far side of the mug.

Carefully set down the mug and admire your handiwork.

If all went to plan, you should have a well-defined heart in your mug. If you were careful about pouring slowly at first and pushing any stray foam back under the espresso layer, you should have a high contrast between the white of the foam and the deep brown of the crema. If you kept pouring close to the pitcher edge of the mug, you should have a design that fills up the mug. If you flexed your fingertips rhythmically, you should have symmetrical and well-defined lines comprising your design. If you slowed your pour and swiped your milk across the design at the end, you should have a well-shaped heart top and tip on the bottom.

If you don't have all these things, don't fret. This stuff takes practice. Just keep at it and you'll be pouring like a master in no time flat!

For more reference, please go to Youtube and search for "Latte Art." There you will find hundreds of videos of pours. This is partly the secret to my success, as I have spent hours studying the pour techniques of baristas from around the world. Just keep at it until you find what is comfortable for you.

And next time you see a design in your morning latte, make sure to let the barista know. It will be a nice break from dealing with the everyday stresses of his morning rush.

Later guys,


Daniel Stewart Mueller at 2:50 PM |


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