2/28/2013 01:37:00 PM

Learning the Art of the Latte Decorations

A latte artist verses a latte novice
By Sarah Freeman
After a week of watching baristas turn our cup of coffee into something almost too pretty to drink -almost - we started to wonder, how hard is it to draw a flower in foam? Note, we were not a barista in a past life, have never made a shot of espresso or steamed milk. We were a blank palate for City Ground’s barista, Katherine Hartline, to mold into a latte Seurat.

Let’s start with the basics. A latte is steamed milk added to espresso. The milk is heated to approximately 160-degrees - any hotter and the milk burns. When it is combined with espresso, lactate breaks down to create sweet rather than bitter flavor. Successful latte art begins with properly steamed milk. Steamed, not pulverized into foam. The milk should be velvety with tiny bubbles. Before pouring into the latte, it is swirled into a whirlpool that combines the milk and foam.

Meanwhile a single shot of espresso is prepared and poured into a flat-bottom cup. Flat because when the milk is poured into the cup, a flat bottoms helps distribute it evenly through the espresso. The first pour is slow and at least an inch above the top of the cup. The milk during this stage is poured underneath the crema or surface of espresso. The ideal result is a light brown liquid without any pockets of milk or espresso. This acts as the background for the art.

Next is the tricky part - the part that had our hand shaking a little bit. To bring the steamed milk to the surface, it is poured faster and closer to the top of the cup. It is placed directly in the center and then added flourish is accomplished later via shaking or pulling the stream of milk through the cup. Good latte art is defined by a strong contrast between the milk and the coffee, symmetry of design and a clear brown ring circling the art.

After watching our teacher create a few delicate rosettas and hearts with ease, it was our turn. We had a tilted glass of espresso in one hand and the hot milk in the other. It felt like we were performing surgery - there is no delete button or eraser on a cup of coffee. Also, keep in mind that all of this is being accomplished with scalding hot liquids and needs to happen quickly before the steam re-condenses.

The first part of the pour went well, assuming we kept a consistent stream. But as the liquid reached closer and closer to the top, a bit of panic sunk in. “OK, pour faster,” she said. So we did, and the second attempt produced the…let’s call it a feather…in the image above on the right, next to Hartline’s more elaborate rosetta on the left.

Not bad for a newbie. Let’s call it beginner's luck and thank our wonderful teacher.

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