A bustling crowd gathered last night the spacious Maglianero café to participate in and witness the first latte art competition in the history of Burlington’s coffee culture. I recognized several baristas from local cafés: Uncommon Grounds, the Bluebird Coffee Shop, Healthy Living, and Maglianero. The contestants stood in front of the espresso machine shivering either with residual caffeine pulsing through their veins or a heightened anxiety about the drama about to ensue. During a frantic practice session, little rivulets of milk poured down the cabinets and pooled on the floor. One ceramic cup shattered, adding to the tense atmosphere.
For those of your who are not coffee nerds like me, you might be asking the question, “what is latte art?” Latte art is comprised of two elements: the rich, red-brown of espresso, and the white of steamed milk. These two contrasting colors are manipulated to make some sort of design by pouring the frothy milk into the dark espresso. A barista can create a pattern by agitating the stream of milk in a certain way, which pushes and pulls at the espresso to make a heart, a “rosetta” or flower-like design, a leaf, a feather, so on. This technique is called a free pour, whereas some baristas use picks or spoons to draw into the foam.
Foaming milk for a latte is harder than it sounds. In order to get foam with the right consistency and texture, a barista has to balance time, temperature, pressure, depth, and even the angle of the steam wand in the milk. Too much air on the surface of the milk will create oversized bubbles, while too little air might result in hot milk and no foam. Baristas usually aim for a delicate micro-foam, the proportion of foam to milk depending on their customers’ preferences for “wet” (less foam) or “dry” (more foam).
The three judges sat anticipating their first pair of beverages: Michael Bradshaw, an employee at Seven Days newspaper and regular customer at Maglianero, Chris Damiani, designer for the upstairs design firm JDK, and Megan Munson-Warnken, former owner and co-founder of Viva Espresso. Their three criterion for latte quality were creativity, definition, and good use of space. Michael, one of the judges, mentioned that he was fascinated to observe “a type of art that is created and immediately starts to disintegrate, then is destroyed– sipped away.”
Juliet Han, Maglianero’s current manager and the host of this exhilarating contest, announced the rules to the restless crowd. Not only was she calling the shots, she was also pulling them. In order to impose some base level of control, Juliet pulled all of the espresso shots one by one as a blank canvas for each participant. The 16 contestants were split into pairs, and the winner of the first round was paired with a new competitor, and so on for four rounds, until there were only two baristas left. The art was restricted to free-pour; no external doodling using picks.
The noise of the crowd grew into a boisterous clatter. Throughout the evening, the judges became more honest in their commentary. Their critiques ranged from “that’s so crisp and symmetrical!” to “that looks vaguely anatomical, almost like an alien phallus.” The expressions of the baristas as they set their overflowing mugs down on the counter were more varied than the art itself. Some were clearly disheartened. They bit their lips, shook their heads, and cursed under their breath. Others bounced up and down in anticipation of imminent victory. Only one or two lattes prompted room-wide applause, such as a double inverted heart.
The competition eliminated experts and amateurs alike, leaving two very quiet and serious baristas in the last round: Jay from Uncommon Grounds, and Stanzi from Maglianero. They both decided to pour rosettas, and the judges were hard pressed to differentiate between the two designs. Both were very symmetrical, high contrast flower patterns that sat at the same height in their respective mugs, looking delicious and delicate. The judges decided on Stanzi’s latte, for its leaves were slightly more crisp than Jay’s.
Throughout the night, in the midst of all the tension and applause, I heard multiple people whisper: “this is a dream come true!” My question as an avid coffee drinker, barista, and thoroughly entertained audience member, is when will the next latte art throwdown take place?