The Magic of Latte Art

October 12, 2016

It's espresso with a big dose of style.  But what’s the point of latte art?  Is it just for aesthetics, or is there something deeper that it adds to the third-wave specialty coffee experience?

Fine-tuning milk and coffee to form art on top of espresso really only emerged in the United States during the mid-1980s.  Latte art is the result of a barista pouring steamed milk from a pitcher into a shot of espresso, and creating intricate ribbon patterns in the foam atop lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, and other drinks. 

But, the words “latte” and “art” are both a bit deceptive.  The art doesn’t just appear on lattes, but can be applied to any coffee drink based on espresso and milk.  And as you'll see, it's as much an art as it is a science!

Visit our baristas at the Java Shack!

Part Art, Part Science – All Talent

Of course, a well-honed artistic impulse is critical to the success of a barista’s pour.  The central goal of the whole process is to create something expressive, beautiful, and fleeting.  Think Van Gogh, but in a coffee cup.

Pouring elegant latte art is a theatrical process that takes skill and a lot of practice.  A beautiful tulip, rosetta, or heart framed within a cup is a painting done specially for each customer.  The short-lived nature of the art bears analogy to sand mandalas or other ephemeral forms of expression.  Some have compared the tension behind the pour to the loading and unloading of a line in fly fishing, as the barista intently cradles a cup and manipulates the height, position, flow, and control of the pour to create a beautiful experience.  Latte “art critics” look to certain variables to judge a pour, such as the contrast of a design, its symmetry, and its central placement in a cup.

Chemically, what is happening is equally fascinating.  Latte art results from pouring steamed milk into the “crema” of an espresso, which is the emulsion of coffee oil and brewed coffee that forms a bold ring around the edges of a drink.  The real trick is in the steaming of the milk.  When milk is perfectly steamed to the right temperature and consistency, a dense, rich “microfoam” emerges on top of the milk that contains air but only the tiniest signs of bubbles, and the concoction looks so smooth that it actually shines and shimmers with the light.  The lactose and proteins in the milk are changing into different chemical structures, with the fat and sugars breaking down into simpler sugars that help the milk taste sweeter. 

Before you start to fantasize about latte art in your morning bowls of Cap’n Crunch, though, you should know that it takes a lot of skill to pour correctly.  To create a design on the top of a latte, the barista must pour in such a way as to get the milk in first, followed by the microfoam. Getting all the variables right, through a lot of hard work and talent, makes for a truly magical result.

 

The Sidekick to an Espresso’s Crema

OK, so latte art is part art, part science.  But does it have an effect on the taste of the drink?

It turns out it does.  When a barista creates latte art on a drink, the bold ring of crema at the top of the drink is intensely flavored – the microfoam forming the “art” on the drink is concentrated in the middle, pushing the strong-tasting espresso oils to the side.  After taking a look at the latte art, if you decide to drink it without mixing the drink, you’ll have a pungent first mouthful, and the rest of the drink might taste comparatively less flavorsome.  Some customers like their espresso this way.  Others prefer to stir the latte art to mix the crema into the drink, spreading the intense flavors throughout the cup and making the whole mixture a little stronger and richer.  This makes for a mellower start and a cleaner finish, at the expense of that signature bitterness that other customers look for in their drinks.  There’s a different “right way” for everyone, and each person’s way is dictated by their preferences.

 

Why We Love It

So why are we in favor of adding latte art to drinks as a general matter, besides the aesthetic appeal?  Because although the presence of latte art does not necessarily mean that you’re going to enjoy your drink, great latte art is the flourish that can signal that a shop cares about the coffee experience, and probably has put together the right raw ingredients for an outstanding drink. 

A lot of things have to come together.  A barista carefully grinds coffee beans, skillfully “tamps” down the ground coffee beans into an even “puck,” uses a precisely calibrated machine to “extract” the espresso under high pressure, obsessively monitors temperature and other variables throughout the process, expertly “textures” perfectly steamed milk into a cup, and works the milk and foam through the espresso.  Most of the magic is in the coffee itself, of course.  So, don’t skimp on that. We recommend a well-tailored, specialty-grade varietal, like our own Golden Horseshoe Espresso

If all these things come together, though, then latte art can be that last loving caress that makes you cry “La vita è bella!” 

And in the end, that’s what we really want coffee to be all about.  Passionate attention to detail, mingled with a few satisfying “oohs” and “ahs.”  That’s the #waytojoe.