BRISTOL — They make for a tough crowd, these 20-something, milk-steaming, latte art-making hipster baristas.
Forget to wipe off the steam wand? Brace yourself for shouts of “rookie!”
Spill your milk? You’ll be met with howls of derision.
Botch your surface design? Be ready for comparisons to a certain surrealist painter (in this case, not a compliment).
You wouldn’t know it by looking at those gentle baristas who serve up your espresso with steamed milk at various local coffee shops, but they’re a competitive bunch. About once a month they meet at various cafes for winner-take-all “throwdowns” with awards of cash prizes, new coffee makers and, most importantly, bragging rights.
Earlier this week the most recent contest was hosted by Angelina’s in Bristol, which serves “pour-over” or “hand pour” coffee, a brewing style used to produce a single cup at a time. The cafe opened in July 2012.
“The contest is a thing that the Providence Coffee Society does and we went to a bunch of them before we opened,” said Jason Brignola, who owns the shop along with Jen Evans. “It’s a nice get-together where everyone has a nice time and maybe we pick up some tricks and tips when pouring.”
Pitcher is only tool
Latte art, which in the United States was first developed in Seattle, Wash. in the 1980s, is created when the pourer makes a design out of the steamed milk that forms on top of a cup of espresso. The only tool of the trade is a small metal pitcher with a spout, although more complex latte artwork can be made by etching out patterns with a coffee stirrer or other utensil.
After steaming the milk in the pitcher, you get it properly textured by tapping the counter and giving the cup a few swirls. Then you’re ready to pour into the cup of espresso, which is topped with a layer of crema, the tan-colored foam that forms as a result of the brewing process. (For a more detailed guide on how to pour, go here.)
“You pour the milk so it sinks beneath the crema and sort of pops out. That’s how you create the contrast in the design,” said Mr. Brignola, adding that the most common latte designs are rosettas — they resemble a fern plant — or a heart.
You don’t need any special artistic skills to make latte creations, he said. “It’s one of those muscle memory things because it happens very quickly. It’s sort of like playing a guitar when you have to do it without thinking, to a degree,” he said.
Like her partner, Ms. Evans started pouring when the shop opened six months ago. Her technique improved through practice, watching others and studying YouTube videos.
“On a scale of one to 10, I’d give myself a solid 5,” said Ms. Evans.
Charles Cowen, one of the newbies in the contest, said he first started pouring a year ago because he needed a job.
“I’ve since learned to love coffee,” said Mr. Cowen, adding that customers seem to like the extra effort that goes into making latte art. “Ultimately the coffee has to taste good; that’s the most important thing. Once you get consistently good lattes, the customers have fun with what can you do to make it special for them.”
Technique is everything, he said. “Your milk has to be steamed perfectly or you just end up with a blob, so it’s adding the right amount of air and the right amount of heat without going too far one way or another.”
Noting that he’s still relatively new to latte art, Mr. Cowen said he didn’t expect to advance far in the throwdown.
“This is my first contest. I won’t win. I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell,” he said.
Winner take all
For the most recent contest, about 20 baristas showed up at Angelina’s and plunked down five bucks each for the privilege of competing in the winner-take-all, single-elimination tournament. (New Harvest Coffee Roasters also offered up a Bonavita coffee brewer for the winner.)
With the pungent smell of extra-dark roast permeating the small room, contestants crowded around the cafe’s counter and tipped back a few beers brought by Rik Kleinfeldt, who with Paula Anderson founded New Harvest in a drafty shed in Rumford back in 2000. The shop is now located in Pawtucket.
After a few practice pours, emcee and ringmaster Jim Connolly announced it was game on. Contestants were paired up in a bracket system and judge Josh Littlefield — winner of the previous throwdown — alternately used a toy clapper and gripper to point to the winning cup in each round. So that everyone could see each pair of lattes, an overhead camera projected a large image of the cups onto a screen in the adjoining room.
True to his word, Mr. Cowen was promptly knocked out in the first round along with Mr. Brignola, while Ms. Evans managed to make it to round two. A surprise showing was made by Andre Sadowski, owner of The Thinking Cup in Boston, who drove all the way to Bristol to compete along with two of his baristas. Despite limited experience in latte art, he made it to the third round before losing in a virtual dead heat.
“He never pours,” marveled Thornton Tice, one of Mr. Sadowski’s baristas along with his brother, Cabell Tice, who called his boss “an artist.” Thornton didn’t fair as well as the other two men, getting knocked out in the first round.
“I steamed my milk too much,” he explained.
Despite all the pretty rosettas, however, the highlight of the evening had to be the good-natured barbs handed out by Mr. Connolly, a technician who repairs and sells equipment and coffee for cafes.
“I’m the de facto host because I’m willing to be loud,” he said.
Indeed. When a design by Ms. Evan’s challenger goes awry in the first round, he barked, “It’s Jen versus Salvador Dali, everyone!” He told one contestant that his pour was “cowardly” and jokingly identified another, Eric Lepine, as an employee at Honey Dew Donuts.
“First and foremost I’m a (trash-talker),” said Mr. Connolly, using somewhat saltier language. “You gotta keep everyone on their toes and you gotta keep everyone grounded.”
When it was time for the final round, only three were still standing: Justin Enis, Mark Hundley and Paddy O’Halloran. The showdown turned out to be anticlimatic, however, as the latter two both spilled their drinks during the transfer to the counter.
The blunder drew guffaws from all, and Mr. Connolly instructed Judge Littlefield to “point to the only cup that still has milk in it.”
For Mr. Enis, a 24-year-old Pawtucket resident who works at Equal Exchange in West Bridgewater, Mass., it was his first latte art throwdown win in about 15 tries. He happily collected a new coffee maker and over $100 in small bills.
But don’t let a lack of artistic skills keep you from trying it, said Mr. Cowen.
“You just have to love coffee,” he said.