The Latte With the Best Squiggle Wins

Two baristas from Annapolis's Caffe Pronto show off their latte art creations in preparations for the national competition at Coffee Fest.Video: Erin Hartigan/washingtonpost.comEditor: Jacqueline Refo/
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.

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