| Jr. Feature |

Masterpiece in a Mug

Baristas have to practice for years to make beautiful latte designs
Art in the ordinary

Who says art has to be framed and hanging on a wall to be considered art? There can be beauty, form, texture, and expression in many things, including your coffee cup — and whatever’s inside it.

Latte is a type of coffee that’s made with espresso (finely ground dark coffee) and hot, steamed milk. And that’s exactly where the fun comes in: That hot, steamed milk can make some pretty cool designs. Those designs can be simple hearts, flowers, or leaf shapes. Or they can be abstract patterns, or animals like bears, bunnies, or ducks. Or they can even be 3-D foam creatures hanging out in your cup. Though this medium is referred to as “latte art,” don’t worry if your parents don’t let you drink coffee yet or if you don’t like the stuff. Latte art can be created in any drink containing milky foam, like hot cocoa — or even tea.

Creativity in a cup

Sometime in the 1980s, in Italy, a coffee seller by the name of Luigi Lupi started experimenting with making patterns of milk in the lattes he was preparing for customers. And at the same time in the United States, a man named David Schomer was playing around with milk and lattes in his Seattle-based Espresso Vivace coffee shop. Some people say that Schomer saw a picture of one of Lupi’s creations and worked from there. Others say the two just independently thought of the same idea.

Whatever, whoever, wherever — latte art was born, beginning with a simple “rosette” pattern, which Schomer had mastered by 1992 (it took years of practice). Then Schomer started working on other patterns and ideas and even began to teach others how to do it. He actually taught classes and printed a book on the topic. Lupi, meanwhile, was doing basically the same thing across the Atlantic.

So whether you prefer to think of Lupi as the inventor of latte art because you like saying Luigi Lupi three times fast, or you’d rather credit Schomer because he’s a US Air Force veteran, a flute performer, an electronics technician, a meteorologist (who studies weights and measures) for Boeing, a coffee roaster, and “the world’s most passionate espresso engineer” (and that’s just so cool), just know that it was like a joint American-Italian operation that became a worldwide phenomenon.

Coffee chemistry

A lot of people don’t think of art as having anything do with science, but many types of art rely on science or math in some form. And latte art actually depends on “a latte” chemistry. First you have the crema (say that in an Italian accent, please). That’s an emulsion (two liquids mixed together so that tiny drops of one liquid are scattered throughout the other) of brewed coffee and coffee bean oil. In case you still can’t figure out what that is (I couldn’t either), that’s the tan-colored foam that sits on top of the espresso. Then there is the microfoam (not microphone, don’t get mixed up!), which is a foam of air and milk. Both the crema and the microfoam are technically colloids (a substance microscopically and evenly dispersed in another substance). Yes, you can go impress your science teacher now.

The latte artist then uses the microfoam to create a picture on top of the espresso. Artists also like to make things symmetrical and to create a nice contrast between the dark coffee and the white milk. There’s also 3-D latte art, which isn’t just a pattern etched in the foam, but is actually sitting up on top, rising out of the cup.

I’d give you instructions on how to try this at home, but… I can’t. Baristas actually have to practice for years to make beautiful latte designs, which they do by pouring the milk with various techniques and sometimes using a special tool to etch patterns into the foam. Oh, yeah, and you also need an espresso machine (and tons of time and patience). And nope, you can’t make latte art in regular old coffee.

Some latte art is enhanced by the addition of chocolate or other syrups to add additional color and more texture. Now, these colloids aren’t stable — meaning they start to separate pretty quickly. The implications for latte art? It has to be created super fast because the picture will be gone so soon, beginning to dissipate after just five minutes. So not only is this art form pretty tough to make, it’s also very short-lived. And yet, its popularity only grows — both with those who create it and those who enjoy seeing (and taking pictures of) it in their cups.

A Latte to Love

In the world of gourmet coffee, latte art is often considered the “finishing touch” to a cup of coffee. Today there are competitions, championships, and prizes offered around the world for this interesting art form. Although it originated in America and Italy, and spread throughout Europe and Australia, the main excitement in latte-art land is happening in Asia today. Japanese and Korean baristas have been doing a lot of innovation and coming up with pretty cool coffee creations in the last few years, including all kinds of 3-D designs, colorful images, and sets of pictures (like birds) — and they’re bringing home the prizes at the latte-art events. Judges check out not only how creative a latte artist is, but also how well he or she knows the technical side of things.

Coming up with — and perfecting — a new design takes hundreds of hours. The winning design at a big latte competition in 2015 (a zebra) was created by a Korean latte artist who practiced on 300 cups a day (yes, you read that right) for about seven weeks. That’s, ahem, nearly 15,000 cups of coffee in total — just to create and finalize one design. (Who drank all that?!)

It takes a practiced barista about seven to ten minutes to make one latte (with art) and the very experienced ones can do it in five minutes. They have to learn just the right height from which to pour the milk and which speed to do it at. Some baristas even use special milk (which costs 30-60 percent more) because it makes for longer-lasting latte art. That’s because this milk contains more fat and protein (and yes, there’s science behind it).

Caffeinated country

13% Percent of coffee drinkers in America who use espresso machines

230 Cups of coffee sold, on average, at coffee shops each day

9 Size, in ounces, of the average American coffee cup

5.2 billion Annual coffee retail sales in the United States, in dollars

64% Percent of American adults who consume coffee every day

2 Average number of add-ons customers request with each order

8:00 Time of day (a.m.) when US coffee sales peak

4.16 Cost, in dollars, of an average latte in America

6.7 Size, in ounces, of the average Japanese coffee cup

3.49 Cost, in dollars, of least expensive lattes in America (found in Idaho)

30,000 Estimated number of coffee shops in America

And what about those of us to do who don’t have espresso machines, expensive milk, or hundreds of hours (and cups of coffee) to waste, but still want “pretty” or “fancy” coffee, cocoa, and more? Get a stencil and sprinkle on some cocoa power or ground cinnamon. Wanna join me for a cup of brew?

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 795)

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