From Jonathan Riethmaier @DistrictBean or email him at jonathan[AT]borderstan.com.
Stop by any of DC’s finer coffee establishments and order an espresso-based beverage (say, a latte, cappuccino or macchiato) and you’re likely see a fanciful decoration sitting atop the drink. This creation, commonly known as “latte art,” adds a touch of beauty and class to the coffee experience. But despite its good looks, latte art is an assurance of quality, or at least that certain conditions have been met that make its presence possible.
Latte art is created using a technique called free pouring, referring to a barista’s ability to pour steamed milk from a pitcher into a cup of espresso to produce a design. Though pretty, the design in your cup is more importantly indicative of three important factors in espresso drink preparation.
Three Factors of Latte Art
- The espresso must meet a minimum standard of quality, whereby a layer of crema — the thicker, speckled brown layer of the espresso — is lasting and of sufficient body to hold the milk that will be poured into it.
- A trained barista must carefully steam the milk to exacting specifications, as a pre-condition of latte art is luscious micro-foam with thousands of tiny bubbles. Baristas spend countless hours perfecting their steaming technique.
- The pouring action itself requires an extraordinarily delicate touch. Through practice, a skilled barista perfects their pouring motion by developing muscle memory and fine motor skills that enable them to carefully dive steam milk into espresso and develop an intricate latte art design.
And while free pouring can yield some impressive results in your morning beverage, most latte art is derived from three basic shapes: rosetta, heart and tulip. The following images show a closer look at these fundamental free-pouring designs.
The rosetta is a traditional floral pattern that’s similar to the leaves of a fern.
This design is created by carefully pouring steamed milk from side-to-side through the drink, creating striations, then pouring straight through the design from top to bottom to “close” the leaves in the pattern.
The heart shape is created by developing a spot of milk in the center of the cup.
The pourer then pushes the milk stream from the pitcher through the spot to drag the spot into a heart shape. Some hearts (as seen above) also include striations similar to the lines created in a rosetta.
At its core, the tulip is a modified heart.
The creation of the tulip utilizes a similar technique as the heart in developing the spot of milk in the cup. Only with the tulip, the pourer pulls up and briefly stops the stream of milk from the pitcher, and then re-enters, splitting the would-be heart to create the tulip design.
Advanced baristas can also create variations of the these three fundamental designs. Advanced designs can include multiples of one, such as two or more rosettas poured into a single cup, or any of the three basic designs combined in the same cup.
Below is a pour that features elements of all three basic designs. In the “smiling man,” you can see the striations of a rosetta that form the mouth, the nose created by a similar stop action as in the tulip, and eyes created from hearts.
You can get a closer look at free pouring and watch many of DC’s most talented baristas each month at area barista competitions. These events, known as Thursday Night Throwdowns, are community celebrations of the barista craft, and free to the public. You can find details on the monthly venues and dates by visiting DMVcoffee.com.
A tremendous thanks to Patrick Otthofer and Donte Gardner for taking a moment to demonstrate free-pouring designs. You can see Patrick and Donte in action at The Coffee Bar at 1201 S Street in DC.