Why are Latte Art Competitions so Important?

To a barista, free form latte art is considered their unique signature to serve their guests at a coffee shop. When I say free form, I’m referring to the pattern a barista can form using only the flow rate of steamed milk incorporating into espresso. A successful pattern on top of a milk based drink (Macchiato, Cortado, Cappuccino, and Latte) shows a customer that the barista properly executed a well pulled espresso along with finely textured milk. This enhances the drinking experience for the customer as the espresso and milk provide a flavor balance with the milk foam providing a delicate rounded mouth feel and texture.

Free form latte art also adds a creative element experience for both the barista and customers. It is quite difficult to delicately level milk foam on top of espresso while free forming a creative pattern (along with a customer order rush). There are several elements in preparing milk based drinks with speed and accuracy that can go wrong: espresso pulling too fast/slow, excessive crema (espresso foam), milk foamed too much/too little, and along with that the uniqueness of the espresso machine itself has several variations to consider.

The World Latte Art Competition takes place 3 to 4 times a year in various cities around America. Tokyo has also been added to the list of places this prestigious competition takes place. The latte art competition works as follows: baristas that apply are encouraged to submit two photos of their best latte art pours for review. These photos are then ranked from 1-64 and placed in a head to head bracket style competition. Submitting pours that are high in color contrast, difficulty, symmetry, and overall aesthetic beauty are normally ranked higher in the bracket. Past competition experience also helps in the ranking portion of the competition. Each competitor gets three minutes on the clock to dose/tamp/extract espresso along with steaming/texturing/pouring the milk to form latte art. In Atlanta there were baristas from America, Japan, Korea, and Canada.

The importance of this competition can be broken down into a few categories. This competition tests how consistent a barista works under pressure. Baristas are not allowed to touch the espresso machine until it’s their turn to compete. In my situation as a competitor I found out a bit too late that the coffee grinder was set at a very fine setting making my espresso extraction extremely long and consumed unnecessary time. I made the best of the coffee I had to work with during the weekend, and an excellent barista must be able to compensate despite technical difficulties. I’ve discovered that the best baristas can walk into an coffee bar they’ve never been to, work on an espresso machine they’ve never seen, and still produce the best possible latte art beverage. This competition is the best example of that…and always has a knack of humbling baristas that have gained notoriety in their respective shops/regions. The amount of love and encouragement these baristas bring during competition season are remarkable. Even though I didn’t make it to the finals, I’ve been told by all the finalists that my time for a trophy is coming that much closer. As a weekend/part time barista for the past 5 years competing against seasoned professionals, what more could you ask for? Back to the drawing board as the next competition I’ll be attending is in June at Chicago.

latte photo 2

To learn more about Steven’s role at S&D, read his profile.