Coffee is hot…literally as well as figuratively. As The New York Times reported just days ago, coffee lovers are seeking out coffee boot camps and training so that they too can brew like a barista. While I don’t drink coffee (I am a recovering diet coke addict, happily supplement with green tea), I am fascinated with people’s relationships with it. Individuals feel strongly about their java preferences, and when you think about the simplicity of its origins (a bean) the proliferation of its incarnations and varieties is mind-boggling. And as if the type of coffee was not enough, your espresso, latte or iced coffee is also expected to look pretty.
Latte art, the act of creating intricate designs in the steamed milk atop a latte, is growing in popularity and competitiveness. Across the country there are regional and national “throw-downs” where baristas challenge each other to create the most beautiful foamy patterns. As we have learned through my previous artistic adventures, I was not blessed with much technical artistic skill (that all went to my brother), but I hoped that maybe the edible medium – not to mention learning from a patient expert – would be a recipe (pun intended) for success. So just before the holidays I set out to become a latte artist!
Enter Shane White, barista extraordinaire from Boston-based Flat Black Coffee. Everyday Shane keeps hundreds of Mullen employees happy and well-caffeinated, and he was generous enough to teach me my way around an espresso machine.
Shane has worked at Flat Black for five years and is a self-taught latte artist, most baristas are. It took Shane six months, tons of practice and some YouTube videos, to master the three basic designs of latte art: a heart, rosetta and a tulip. At this point in his career, Shane estimates that he has made tens of thousands of lattes – not to mention participated in Boston’s “Thursday Night Throw-down” competitions — so I was in very good hands.
My coffee naiveté may stem from my lack of drinking experience, but I was totally surprised by all the variables that can impact one’s latte creations: The type of milk (the foam from steamed skim and soy milk don’t lend themselves to latte art, 2% and whole milk are far superior), the size of coffee ordered (the larger the cup, the more milk and therefore the more foam you need to control), even the age of the espresso can affect how it behaves.
We started our lesson with Shane demonstrating his technique for a heart (the easiest of the three basic designs): he steamed 2% milk, prepared the shot of espresso, held the cup at a slight angle, started to pour the steamed milk in at a surprisingly (to me) fast pace, then as the cup filled, he straightened the cup while moving the steel pitcher containing the milk in a slow, steady semi-circle. Then at the very last moment he pulled the lingering drip of milk through the center of the cup as if to cut it in half. As he began to pour the foam disappeared into the espresso, but eventually it re-emerged at the surface of the cup, ready to take on whatever incarnation Shane told it to.
While Shane talked me through each of these steps as he did them, a great deal of what he does clearly comes from a place of experience and instinct. Having made so many thousands of lattes, he could see and feel how the milk was behaving and could make adjustments — to the pace at which he poured, the point at which he straightened the cup or the touch he applied — to keep his creation on track.
You know sometimes someone will explain or show you how to do something and you think to yourself, “Hey, that doesn’t look too bad. I may be able to pull that off.” Well, this was not one of those times. It was clear that latte art takes much more skill and finesse than I had expected. But, I was already behind the coffee bar, so I couldn’t quit now.
Shane made the espresso and steamed the milk for me (no need to set myself up for failure right out of the gate), then I took over. Double-fisting the cup and milk pitcher, I started to pour. Shane was right over my shoulder quietly directing and encouraging me, but there were a lot of small things I had to do all at the same time. While I did everything he said, my pour was slow and unsteady, I don’t think my semicircle was wide enough and my entire effort was too hesitant. I ended up with a large blob in the middle of my cup. Shane and I decided it looked like a strawberry, so he did a little accessorizing (foam dots for seeds) and we made the most of it:
My first attempt would turn out to be my strongest. After the strawberry, I created what we decided was an egret. Yeah, I know it’s a stretch, but look closely and you can clearly see my bird’s long legs and neck:
Then I hit rock bottom with this indistinguishable blob:
While my work was not that impressive, what I was impressed with was the fact that even when I had an audience — in the form of a thirsty colleague waiting for his latte — I did not get frustrated or impatient with myself. And while I was slightly embarrassed to hand my blob over the counter, I did so with a smile and a giggle. And hey, the good-natured Tim Connor said it still tasted good!
While I did have fun, I have come to the realization that I can never ever be a barista. Or like Shane, maybe I have to be persistent and take the time to learn this skill, which I now realize is very much a form of art. A tasty one at that! Check out more of Shane’s creations:
I’d like to thank the very talented Shane White for his patient instruction. He helped me appreciate that a barista’s creations are not just a simple cup of Joe. Thanks also go out to Kara Feigenbaum, Louise Lloyd Owen and Charley Perkins, three Mullenites who provided instagram images of Shane’s impressive work. I was not compensated in any way for this post.