By 9 p.m. La Cimbali is quiet, its silver control panel, buttons and appendages wiped clean. In the previous hour-and-a-half, more than a half-dozen baristas used Café Xpresso’s espresso machine to froth, foam and finesse their way into edible art.
It is a study in skill, concentration and imagination, as well as a glimpse into how years of practice and inherent talent transform milk and espresso into one of the more temporal of creative pursuits. Gathered in the cozy coffee shop in Newtown on a recent evening, baristas, judges and spectators witness a latte art and espresso throwdown. It is an aromatic and tasty indication that just as interest in specialty coffee has risen during the past 20 years, so has the popularity of latte art.
Coffee latte artists have the option of two techniques. Free pour is dependent on the texture of the steamed milk, the quality and brew of the espresso and the skill of the barista to create a pattern by the way they wield the small silver pitcher. With etching, baristas create patterns with a tool, such as a stirrer, stick or spoon, after the milk has been poured.
On this evening, it is all free pour, and three arbiters, including myself, are being asked to assess the latte art portion with criteria that would not be foreign to any art-show judge. One must look at the balance and symmetry. Bold, confident lines will win the day, as will a symmetry among all the elements. The canvas matters, too. Designs must align with the size of the cup.
The average Joe picking up his or her cup of joe might not be as beholden to presentation when the first sip is really all they are thinking about, but in a contest, impressions matter — meaning the clarity and style of the design must pass muster. As in any creative contest, originality is often sought, which in this case requires the barista to implement a bit of flair and perhaps a unique set of ingredients.