A Never-Ending Roller Coaster. But How?
It's simple, latte art is just a drawing. Inject air into milk, whip it in circles and heat it up. Not too much and not too little. Then, just pour it over coffee and make a drawing. Easy huh? Well, not so fast. There are no lines to draw inside, no stencils to shape around, and milk isn't cheap. I'm not going to make this a latte art guide, I'll do that some time later. I will write my experiences, thoughts, and feelings toward latte art here.
The Quintessential Barista Skill?
Short answer, yes. But not really.
"Oh, so you make the cool drawings on coffee?" I've heard a version of that so many times that I forget who has actually asked it to me. Part question and part truth, it's what most people first think of about a barista. We make coffee, and we make it pretty. While it's not all we do, it's a good start.
I can't remember where I first heard it, or read it. It came from somewhere, and since, I've heard multiple people say something like this. Here goes: "Latte art is a representation of how much attention to detail, practice, and care a barista puts into their work". You really care, you try hard to make it pretty. I do remember when I heard it, I was just starting to realize that coffee is all around the world and a lot of people are trying to make it pretty. So I joined in. I looked up every article on how to steam milk perfectly, every YouTube video there was on latte art I watched. I saw how to pour the meanest rosetta, or the most crisp, symmetrical tulip. The roundest heart. At first I got nowhere. It turned out you don't really learn how to pour pretty latte art by watching YouTube videos and liking every latte art post on Instagram. You improve your latte art by pouring latte art. That was the missing piece.
There's no numbers, equations or formulas. Nothing like that. Like shooting a basketball, you get better by shooting more and more basketballs. Yes it helps to know the fundamentals and some "tips and tricks", but a video won't pour for you, just like this post won't steam your milk for you. Practice it, intentionally. Pay attention to what you're doing. Pay attention to the things you did right and the things you didn't, so next time you know what to correct. Do that over and over and you'll see your pours improve. That's how I did it. I will say though, it helps to have people around you who are also interested in improving latte art. I too, had people like this around me early on.
See yourself on video and compare it to that cool Instagram post. Take pictures of it. Show your friends, your coworkers, your crush. Heck, do what I did and post 300 of them on Instagram. It helps to compare your last pour to your next. Just as it helps to see your progression over a long period of time. Soon, and without you realizing, making some sweet latte art will become second nature.
They weren't always Instagram worthy
If you have the chance, compete at one of these. At least one. They're really fun, and you get to see first-hand exactly what I'm talking about. If you've been to one, then you know what I mean. I've written about them before, but in this context, latte art throwdowns serve to more-or-less gauge where your skills are. The competitive fun makes you want to try again when you're knocked out, until you get it right, even when you know you're outmatched. So you get back behind bar and start over again. To the basics. Over and over until you get that pour right. For me it was clear. I couldn't get past a heart in a cortado glass. Those damn 5 ounce cups. My nemesis. I got beat some 3 or 4 times on that pour, a small reason why I don't enjoy cortados. Now, years after, I can pour a nice, round, bubbly heart no problem. And that takes us back to the deliberate practice and attention to detail I mentioned before. I cared, I kept wanting to go on down the bracket. Now when someone orders a cortado, I'm confident that cup will have some of my best art in it.
The Time of 1v1's
When I first started working in coffee, I wasn't the busiest barista by any means. Add another person to the mix, and you're both buying for the next latte order to come through. That's the way it went at the beginning and for the next couple of years. A customer would walk in and I would secretly hope they'd want a latte or cappuccino. Not cortados back then. When they would, it was either a coin flip or quick compromise between my coworker and I to see who would handle the milk. My friend Rene will remember. We would then take turns and compare who did best. On the rare occasion we would get two lattes at the same time, we would make a small bet or wager to add some more fun into the shift. Plenty of times I had to pay up, in the form of a bag of chips or a pack of gum. But I too got my fair share of wins.
Nowadays, lattes stack up in line. And there's a new challenge, alternative milks. I used to only use whole milk, but now, oat milk, almond milk, non-fat, you name it, it's in the fridge and people like them. Each different milk makes you start at square one, since they all steam differently. And there's the entire process all over again. One latte after another, the pours get better. They're the bread and butter of the coffee shop. I've worked plenty of shifts where I made close to 200 of them. Crazy. You end up exhausted. But the lattes don't care, keep coming and coming.
More recently I've been getting pretty good at latte art. Now more than ever customers take a few seconds before putting a lid on their cup and appreciate the tulip I've made for them. Some even take a picture. My customers began to enthusiastically say "Hey! Look! It's a flower in my coffee!" There's also the ever popular "It's so pretty I don't even want to drink it!" I smile, say thanks, and think back to the time when compliments like that came a few times per week. I get people asking me for advice on pouring better latte art, if not to teach them entirely. It gives me a serendipitous feeling, since I'm still always looking forward to 1-upping myself at every pour and get better little by little. I can see the enthusiasm behind the advice seeking, and I remember the times when I was so eager to be able to add just one more layer to my tulips.
Back Up Top
So to the question, is latte art the quintessential barista skill? The answer stays the same. Yes, but not really. Like with everything else that there is, if you're truly interested in it, you're going to want to improve. You'll put the effort in. It'll take some setbacks, like hating cortados for a while, but you'll see that over time your interest will be greater than the challenge and you'll have your customers praising your latte art left and right. So it's not latte art itself that is the quintessential skill, it's what it stands for. That mysterious quote stands true, "Latte art is a representation of how much attention to detail, practice, and care a barista puts into their work". It speaks for the quintessential skill. It's not any different than playing a sport, or any hobby or job for that matter. What makes someone good at something is them enjoying what they do, getting better at it, and sharing it with others. Latte art is no different. It's not all we do, but it's a start. And just like with latte art, there's a whole bunch of other things to get better at over time for a barista. Doing that is the quintessential skill. Oh and don't forget, it's fun.