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The Latte With the Best Squiggle Wins

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Four baristas at Caffe Pronto Coffee Roastery in Annapolis are practicing their wiggle. With only days to go before a major competition, this is serious business. For precise latte art, the wiggle is all in the wrist.

"Andy is nailing this one. That's definitely a tulip," says Greg Suekoff, 30, as he watches co-worker Andy Sprenger pour hot frothed milk from a metal pitcher into a cup containing a double shot of freshly extracted espresso.

Almost magically, up pops a crisp flower shape, followed by fine lines that drift and sway and then settle into a pretty pattern.

"Sweet," says one of the guys.

"That's extra cool," says another.

Sprenger, 35, is confident: "I think I can win."

The weekend will tell. That's when the men from Pronto, as well as two baristas from Murky Coffee in Arlington, will compete against more than 35 other contenders from the United States, Canada and Japan for a top prize of $5,000 in the Millrock Free Pour Latte Art Championship at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The event is held three times a year in cities across the country in conjunction with Coffee Fest, a coffee retailer trade show.

Suekoff is the only Pronto barista who has competed before, placing in the top five at one contest last year. Most of the winners since the contest began in 2002 have been from the West Coast.

According to the official rules, contestants will have five minutes to produce as many as three different "free-pour" lattes using only espresso and steamed milk. Judges will rate the results on beauty, balance, color infusion, definition and creativity.

Vincent Iatesta, owner of Caffe Pronto and a barista in his own right, says latte art is "one component of creating a quality coffee culture." It takes more than a steady hand, the right wrist movement and lots of practice.

"You have to start with a great espresso with low acidity," says Iatesta, 42, who calls himself "a purist" when it comes to details from sourcing the coffee beans to preparing specialty coffee drinks.

The right beans, properly ground and extracted, produce a golden-brown foam called crema, which is one essential component of forming the design on top. The other is the correct steaming of the milk.

The tip of the steam wand on the espresso machine must be submerged in the milk in such a way that a tiny whirlpool is generated, creating what baristas refer to as a micro-bubble lattice: thick, velvety milk that reacts with the crema.

Depending on the desired design, the milk is poured into the coffee at a certain speed or tilt of the cup. Additional subtle moves can coax a tree shape or heart to rise from the foam.

Free pour is not to be confused with the far easier technique of "etching," in which the barista uses an implement, such as a stir-stick, to form a design on the surface of the drink, often with the aid of chocolate sauce.

"You can teach that to anyone in 30 seconds," Iatesta says. No etching is done at Caffe Pronto.

"People don't want you to put things into their drinks after you pour them," Suekoff says.

Latte art is not new. But in the Washington area, the number of practitioners is limited, for the most part, to baristas who work in artisan coffee houses such as Murky, Caffe Pronto, Tryst in Adams Morgan, Baked & Wired in Georgetown and Big Bear Cafe in Bloomingdale. The culture is far more advanced on the West Coast.

Iatesta credits David Schomer of Seattle, co-owner of Espresso Vivace Roasteria, with elevating the practice to an art. Would-be artists study Schomer's training videos, available at http://www.espressovivace.com.

Schomer, in turn, drew inspiration from Italy.

"As far as I can tell, the Italians have been doing the leaf and the heart since at least 1950," says Schomer, 51. "Latte art has become the mark of the independent, artisan barista. Their pour distinguishes them from the coffee chains."

At Murky Coffee, barista Katie Duris says she spends "maybe too much time" on YouTube and such sites as http://www.ratemyrosetta.com, studying latte art videos and photos.

"Sometimes I'm up all night," says Duris, 24, as she pulls a double shot in preparation for a competition practice session with co-worker and co-competitor Tommy Gallagher, 25. (A caffeine buzz may have something to do with it, too.) "I'm trying to figure it out. When should I shake it? When should I pull back?"

Duris and Gallagher have a more relaxed, fluid style to their pour than the men of Pronto. But the results are similar.

"Katie likes round stuff. I like things a little more billowy," Gallagher says as each pours a rosetta, or graduated tree shape. Then they rate each other's work.

"It's nice, well done. But personally, I'm not into her line down the middle," Gallagher says. "I prefer an implied line."

Duris inspects Gallagher's result. "It loses something up here," she says, pointing to the outer edges of the rosetta. "I'd like it more refined."

For the competition, Gallagher says, he's thinking of trying a laurel wreath design. Duris remains unsure.

"I like tulips. But I can't pour a good tulip," she says. "I'm biased toward a big, fat, symmetrical rosetta. I think they're pretty."

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