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Bob Moon: Let’s pause now for a coffee break. Some of the world’s top baristas will gather tomorrow in the Danish capital of Copenhagen for the World Latte Art Championship.
Now if you’re envisioning some type of painting or sculpture best enjoyed while sipping your favorite morning brew, that’s not it. To borrow an image conjured up by Carly Simon, we’re talking “clouds in your coffee.”
Stuart Cohen spent some time at America’s only latte art competition to find out more about this very elaborate and ephemeral art form.
Stuart Cohen: By now, pretty much everyone knows what a latte is, but what exactly is latte art?
Chris Ganger from the Ithaca Coffee Company in Ithaca, New York, explains.
Chris Ganger: It’s a combination of beautiful espresso, beautiful microfoam steamed milk and then just a lot of real fine muscle movement, coordinated control when you’re pouring the drink, to make a beautiful pattern on top.
Those patterns in brown and white foam can look like hearts, leaves, ferns, tulips or combinations of any of those. Ganger says to get good latte art, practice makes perfect.
Ganger: It’s a matter of repeating it 200 drinks a day until it’s just a muscle memory sort of thing and you can almost do it blindfolded. If you see it, it’s like a visual cue that the drink is going to taste good. You eat first with your eyes, then your taste buds. That’s why we do a latte art.
Latte art is a growing subculture in the 12 billion-dollar-a-year speciality coffee industry, part of what self-proclaimed coffee geeks call the third wave of espresso.
Nick Cho: I would say that even five years ago, there were maybe 20 shops in the country that were really pouring good latte art regularly. Now it’s got to be over a hundred.
That’s Nick Cho. He owns Murky Coffee in Washington, D.C., and sits on the board of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. He says latte art has also caught on big in Europe and Asia.
Cho: That’s just what we call free pour latte art, then there’s the etching, which is a lot like cake decoration and then when you do that and you apply a stick and kind of manipulate the crema — the brown parts and white parts of the top of the cappuccino or latte — then, you know, there’s millions of different possibilities.
Independent coffee shop owners like Cho see it as a way to differentiate themselves from the big chains and give customers a little something extra.
Katie Duris is one of Cho’s baristas at Murky Coffee.
Katie Duris: People are always really impressed with what they’re getting in their cup when it looks really pretty and a lot of times, people haven’t seen that before and that really makes a really strong impression on them. I think it keeps people coming back.
But latte art as a competitive sport? Well, for those involved it’s no joke. There are four regional competitions in the U.S. every year, including here in Washington.
Competition announcer: Katie’s got two pours out and is working on her third.
Shop owners say it keeps their staff excited about the daily grind of pouring all those cappuccinos and lattes. And now there’s big money involved. David Heilbrun organized the first and only latte art competition in the U.S. six years ago. He now has a major sponsor and a $5,000 first prize.
David Heilbrun: In the early days, we couldn’t get 20 competitors to compete and now we run 40 at each show and we turn away 20.
And the baristas pouring those little works of art don’t seem to mind that it all disappears in just a matter of minutes.
Competition announcer: On the first pour here, you have more leaves all the way through. Judges definitely like to see quite a few leaves.
In Washington, I’m Stuart Cohen for Marketplace.
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