Though the exact origins of latte art has not been traced (many attribute it to the Italians who created the espresso), a number of people credit its popularity to David Schomer, a known barista and cafe owner in Seattle, Washington. It was reported that the now-ubiquitous latte art pattern, the heart, was born at his Espresso Vivace in the late 1980s. Since then, this fancy method of preparing coffee designed with steamed milk has turned into a craze, evolving from rosettes and tulips to animals and personalities.
In the Philippines, latte art is still a relatively new practice. Allegro Beverage Corporation president Leo de Leon dates latte art’s emergence in the country to be around the same time American and European coffee chains opened. “When they started, the skill level was very low, [but with these Western coffee shops], the level improved. Because these chains have a standard to make espresso, cappuccino, cafe mocha, and cafe latte, the skill level [of Filipino baristas] immediately improved,” he says. “And to distinguish themselves from other coffee shops, they produced latte art.”
The cafe latte, made with equal amounts of espresso, milk, and foam, requires certain characteristics and a particular set of tools to be transformed into a masterpiece.
First is the espresso. Hidenori Izaki—2015 World Barista Champion and the first Asian to hold the title—does not recommend freshly roasted beans to make your brew. “If your coffee is too [fresh] the crema gets very rough, so it’s very hard to pour nice latte art,” he says. The crema, which is basically the emulsion of natural oil from the coffee bean, is the layer seen on top of a shot of espresso. “You need to age your coffee. You need to rest your coffee after roasting, maybe [around] 20 days.”
Schomer, in the course of his development of Espresso Vivace, found that the temperatures at which espresso is made also had an effect. He pegged his ideal temperature at 203.5 degrees. Anything lower, he noted, resulted in a sour taste, while anything higher produced espresso that was more bitter and burnt.
“If your coffee is too [fresh] the crema gets very rough, so it’s very hard to pour nice latte art,” Hidenori Izaki says. The crema, which is basically the emulsion of natural oil from the coffee bean, is the layer seen on top of a shot of espresso. “You need to age your coffee. You need to rest your coffee after roasting, maybe [around] 20 days.”
The steaming and pouring techniques to prepare the milk are also important, notes Izaki. To produce high quality steamed milk, it is ideal that it be very cold and properly aerated without bubbles. Whole milk is also generally preferred, as this produces the best flavor. For espresso-based drinks most especially, it is preferred that the milk has a creamy, rich taste.
Technique and talent
Latte art is primarily an appeal on our vision. “People are very sensual,” De Leon says on the popularity of latte art. “That’s why chefs plate their dishes. Latte art is a way of plating the coffee drink. To make it more appetizing. Even before they sip the coffee, [the drinker] already enjoys it because there’s some sensual pleasure to it.”
This type of art can be created using two methods: free pouring and etching. The free pour involves the precise streaming of milk from a jug into a cup of espresso. Shapes are formed by altering several factors in the pour such as the height and proximity of the jug from the espresso, and the hand movement, which forms the shapes.
Free pour can be considered the more technical of the two. In latte art competitions, this category is judged based on three main criteria: symmetry, complexity of design, and contrast between the coffee and milk. Free pour latte art often takes the form of any of the following classic shapes: the heart, the tulip, and the rosette. Combining these free pour designs have resulted in more complex forms such as the scorpion or the swan. Aside from the classic shapes, these have become mainstays in latte art throwdowns.
“In the end, you drink the coffee. I think that’s what’s important—the most important element to consider. You do not only form latte art, you also need to pay attention to making coffee,” says Hidenori Izaki.
Etching, on the other hand, requires more creativity and artistic sense. It involves using a pick or stick to draw images onto the coffee surface, which acts as a canvas for the latte artist. Some baristas go as far as adding food dye to their art.
Latte art competitions serve as a platform for baristas to not only improve their skills but also to connect with and exchange ideas with other baristas. “We created this competition because we want to raise the bar [in the barista] profession here in the country. It’s a very specialized profession. Now you even have latte art specialists,” De Leon points out.
Allegro Beverage has been hosting barista competitions since 2004 and sending representatives for international competitions for the past four years. In turn, they also invite barista competition champions such as Izaki to speak during local barista throwdowns. “The more we have of these, the better appreciation for specialty coffee and the barista profession. Our baristas here are getting better and better. The more of this competition we have, the more exposure there is in the industry, the higher our skills, and the more informed we [become],” says De Leon.
Favor on flavor
Although latte art is generally practiced by coffee shops and chains, it is regarded as an additional or more advanced skill for baristas. Its creation is a display of one’s technique. And though there exists a dispute on its importance, baristas still ultimately put higher value on actual coffee-making—that is, the taste and quality of each cup.
“For me, taste always comes first,” Izaki says. “But latte art is important when it comes to showcasing the beauty of coffee so that you can visually enjoy the cup of coffee as well. You don’t merely look at coffee. Maybe you [post it on] Instagram or something. But in the end, you drink the coffee. I think that’s what’s important—the most important element to consider. You do not only form latte art, you also need to pay attention to making coffee.”
Originally published in F&B Report Vol. 14 No. 4