Latte art is the creation of a design on a beverage through the skillful pouring of steamed milk over espresso.
Simple, right? No. Wrong. Bad. Latte art is difficult to explain, difficult to teach, difficult to learn. Because I can, I’ve already cheated by limiting my definition above to include only “free-pour” latte art.1 So let’s start with how it’s made, then move on to whether or not it’s cool and/or good.
How It’s Made
The pouring of latte art can be divided into two main phases after the espresso and milk are prepared: (1) the barista sets up the dark background, and (2) the barista pours the design on the surface of the beverage.
In the first phase, a steady stream is poured from higher above the cup into the espresso. The stream of milk falls beneath the surface in the cup, mixing with the espresso and leaving a dark canvas for art at the surface.
In the second phase, the barista brings the pitcher down as close to the surface of the beverage as possible, still pouring a steady stream. Now the white steamed milk from the pitcher doesn’t fall beneath the surface, but flows out across the top, contrasting with the previously solid brown background.
A new barista’s first try might look like this:
Baristas create different designs in bevs by manipulating the pitcher during the second phase. After learning a few moves (shaking back and forth, changing the position over the surface, and lifting to pour back through the design), a barista can pour a heart or a rosetta (“fern”).
Here’s a really awesome Rosetta by Mia at Pavement:
Is It Cool/Good?
“But who cares?” you ask. “Isn’t latte art just an excuse for baristas to show off their technical prowess in the field of aesthetic whimsy-making? Doesn’t it not really guarantee a delicious bev at all? Didn’t the field of aesthetic whimsy-making become obsolete after Dorian Gray or something?”
Right. Or, rather, sort of right. First of all, Dorian Gray is a fictional character; you probably mean Oscar Wilde. As to the rest, it’s true that latte art doesn’t make a beverage taste any better. But, on average at least, the bevs with latte art I’ve been served have tended to be higher quality than those without. It’s one of those causation vs. correlation situations—or, put more fancily as a rhetorical question by David Walsh on his blog The Other Black Stuff:
I might observe that cappuccinos that I have received that have latte art on them tend to taste better on average than those that do not. Does latte art cause the cappuccinos to taste better? Or is it more likely that there is a confounding variable?
It is often pointed out that latte art is a sign of an (at least somewhat) experienced barista. David Walsh’s point is that baristas who pour latte art or manually brew or wear skinny jeans2 may be “more likely to care about the taste of the end product,” but that those factors aren’t the cause of a delicious cup.
More important perhaps is that awesome latte art can’t be poured without awesome milk; attention to detail with latte art requires attention to detail with milk steaming. Milk must be the right texture, with microfoam (tiny air bubbles, as opposed to big frothy “dry” bubbles) incorporated throughout the whole pitcher. Art is also best poured with milk prepared at a good tasting temperature (sorry extra-hot drinkers! Your milk pours weird and tastes weird).
And since all ‘spresso-n-milk bevs cortado-n-larger are mostly milk, the sweetness and texture of the milk are way more important (IMHO) than the quality of the extraction of espresso.
1And because etching is silly and has no place in a cafe where either speed or quality is a priority. After the several extra minutes it takes for a barista to coax the surface of a latte into the image of a teddy bear, or (worse yet) my face, the beverage itself will have cooled and turned old-latte textured.
2The skinny jeans thing is a joke, please no angry pro- or anti-hipster emails to me or Mr. Walsh.