When I first embarked on my career in coffee, my mentor had a deep aversion to latte art and the culture that promoted it. His view was that he was no good at it, and the flavor of his coffee and milk was the most important part. The drawing on the top of the drink was pretty, but it served no purpose.
I was inclined to agree, having never heard arguments to the contrary. Almost six years later, I could not disagree more.
One of the first books that I read while learning about the coffee world was Scott Rao’s “The Professional Barista’s Handbook.” While heavy on espresso technique and physics, there are several standout points that are made in this book. Mr. Rao is careful to point out the finer points of espresso preparation, including the proper texturing of milk and steaming technique. He speaks about the pitcher containing the proper amount of mircro-foam (foam bubbles textured so small and dense that they look shiny and smooth like a layer of paint.)
So what changed my mind? A great barista once pointed out that in order to create latte art, all components of the drink must be made perfectly. If you don’t have good milk, or your espresso volume is incorrect, you won’t be getting any eye-candy. Therefore, latte art was proof of a well-prepared drink. It does not mean that a drink without art is poorly made, but if you get that Instagram-worthy beverage, you are in for a treat.
Micro-foam is one of the crucial ingredients in a properly prepared drink. If your dairy-milk latte is presented, and you can see bubbles in your top layer, you are likely not going to have a silky and sweet mouth-feel, the hallmark of a traditional latte/cappuccino. Overstretched milk can feel gritty and dry, and taste scorched. In contrast, properly steamed milk will be silky smooth, and sweet (the sweetness being achieved by converting proteins in the milk to sugars via proper steaming temperatures and techniques). Keep an eye out for a glass-like surface on the top of our drink.
The second critical ingredient is the coffee. We have come a long way in the coffee industry in the past decade. We have moved from inaccurate “eyeball” amounts of coffee, and brewing the shot until it hit a graduation on a glass, to carefully weighing out our coffee dose (usually within 0.2g) and stopping the brew to within +/- 1 gram. This ensures that we are “dialed in” to the flavor zone in the coffee and not sour or bitter (under/over extraction).
In all honesty, it doesn’t take much work to nail these skills. In our shop, we invited a guest barista from another local café to come in and do an in-service. We already had great pitchers of milk, and a few of us even regularly free-poured rosettas and stacked tulips 4 layers deep. After 2 hours under the careful eye of the guest lectern, we all had fine-tuned the process. A few weeks later, after practicing the new methods presented to us, every barista is regularly pouring designs, and the quality of our product has improved in kind.
Although not necessary for an amazing experience, latte art is akin to a chef “plating” or preparing his food with care and with visual appeal. It is the mark of a true professional, someone who cares about their quality and their presentation. It is also a great way for a barista to self-calibrate their drink preparation. If they suddenly can’t pour anything that resembles art, maybe it is time to look at the technique that they are using in practice.
Perhaps before writing off the whole ‘latte art’ craze, we should appreciate the skill and work that goes into it, and realize that it does indeed have merit.