At the Monthly Thursday Night Throwdown, Latte Design is More than Skill: It’s Art

Latte art is the next step in becoming a coffee master.

By: Molly Jacob

“So, what do you think of this latte art thing? I mean, how many different leaf designs can you really make?” I ask the couple standing next to me while at Counter Culture’s Thursday Night Throwdowns, a monthly latte art competition for professional baristas and coffee drinkers. Last month, the event took place at Arlington’s Bayou Bakery. This month, the competition is tomorrow in D.C.

“Don’t you think it’s a bit overdone?” I ask again. 

This is the wrong thing to say, because the man (who I later find out is Joe Patchus, one of the latte art contestants) says back to me, “Is a painting overdone?”

“Why does my latte have to have a heart on it? Why can’t I just enjoy a good cup of coffee?” I say to myself, this time not out loud.

“You can enjoy coffee,” says Patchus, who doesn’t work at a coffee shop and picked up the skill on his own. “[Latte art] is just the next step in becoming a coffee master.” In fact, at a LoCo Joe in Purcellville, latte art earns baristas a raise.

I always figured latte art was just another way we attempt to prettify our food, part of the so-called “food porn” movement and a way to get more likes on Instagram. (Did I later Instagram one of the winning latte art designs? Yes. I regret nothing.)

“The most common misconception about latte art is that it’s for aesthetic reasons,” says Adiam Berhane, owner of the soon-to-be-open Caffe Aficionado. “That’s what I thought before—it was all bunnies and flowers. But it’s actually a quality guarantee. It’s an assurance to customers that the right conditions have been met while preparing the latte.”

Latte art is a way baristas show that the milk used is a good consistency, which is why latte artists prefer to work with milks with higher fat content. The most common design, the multi-petaled “tulip” or “leaf,” is created by free-pouring steamed milk into an espresso shot, steadily layering it until the froth separates from the milk and rises to the surface of the shot. Even the best latte artists will create impure or messy designs if the equipment, coffee beans or milk is not of the highest quality or if any part of the process is done too quickly or too slowly.

“As the Italians would say, macchine giuste, fagioli destra, mano destra,” says Berhane, who was raised in Milan. “Right machines, right beans, right hands.”

Although latte art can be found in some Italian coffeehouses, Berhane says it is Americans who have elevated the practice.

“In Italy, they say, ‘This is how my father did it, this is how I will do it,’” says Berhane. “But in America, they are always improving, looking for the next best way to do something. Americans, when they get into something, they take over.”

Maybe, for some, latte art is a representation of the American way of building on our accomplishments to improve ourselves. For others, such as Alex Narus, a latte artist in the Thursday Night Throwdown and a barista at Tryst in Washington D.C., it’s “almost meditative.” And for still others, it’s merely a way to make coffee an art form. Whatever the reason, events like these make the hobby once reserved for coffee connoisseurs more accessible to your average cup o’ Joe.

 The next Thursday Night Throwdown is scheduled for September 12 at Madcap Coffee.