Latte art used to be overrated.
When I first got into coffee culture, circa 2007, latte art was my sole metric for determining a good coffee shop.
Of course, at the time my favorite drink was a caramel latte in a serving size that would make European heads swim. (I had only recently been converted from iced mochas with extra chocolate, a drink I enjoyed because “it tastes like chocolate milk.”) I’m not sure what other metric I might have used to determine what constituted a good cup of coffee.
But my approach also reflected the values of the barista community at large.
At the time, netting the top prize at CoffeeFest’s World Latte Art Open Championship could actually lead to an endorsement deal. Even a top-three finish would earn a barista fame and recognition in the coffee community.
But pendulum swings are inevitable, and it’s never been less cool to care about latte art. If anything, latte art expertise is thought to betray a disinterest in the actual cup quality. “But what does it taste like?” One can imagine the latte art cynic saying when faced with a meticulously crafted multi-tiered tulip.
The decrease in latte art’s popularity has coincided with the meteoric rise of alternative milks— most recently oats edging out almonds as the plant base of choice. But non-dairy milks lack caseins— the main protein in dairy. It’s this protein that allows milk to foam so well, which makes latte art with plant-based milks notoriously difficult. Even those baristas who are capable of coaxing the most luxurious of foams from alternative milks will likely admit they get their best pours from dairy.
But perhaps the bigger culprit behind latte art’s fall from grace is the filter-coffee-only crowd. I have had coffee professionals tell me that milk should never go in coffee, and in fact, espresso machines “ruin” coffee. While I confess to my own personal preference for filter coffee, a proper cappuccino is one of life’s most decadent luxuries. It breaks my heart to think that some of my colleagues in the coffee industry would deny us such a simple pleasure.
I like to think there is a via media, in which latte art is recognized as an essential barista skill— albeit one of many necessary to be a well-balanced barista. In particular, three reasons come to mind why latte art still matters.
1. Latte art is mostly about texture
Infusion, contrast, symmetry. The typical categories for evaluating latte art are dependent on really good microfoam. Over-aeration, under-aeration, late-aeration, poor incorporation. All of these milk-steaming errors will result in wonky, blotchy latte art. To get the best latte art, you need good milk texture, and let’s face it, creamy, luscious foam is why we order a cappuccino or latte in the first place.
2. Latte art demonstrates a larger mastery of skills
Latte art isn’t easy. Even a simple pattern like a heart or monk’s head requires practice, patience, and a certain amount of bravery. ( I always tell baristas in my courses, you can’t learn how to pour latte art without overfilling a few cups.)
Although I’ve met latte art “experts” with questionable coffee knowledge or less than ideal tamping technique, for the most part, the extra effort it takes to learn latte art carries over to other parts of the job. In my experience, most baristas who want to excel at latte art also care about proper extraction and good hospitality.
3. People like latte art
I used to have a customer that would order “a to-go latte without any latte art.” It bothered him that the barista would take an extra 2-3 seconds to pour a pattern that would simply be covered by a lid. That person, was unequivocally, a jerk. Most people see a heart or tulip on the top of their latte and smile. Some might take a picture. I’ve even had people drop an extra dollar in the tip jar. Regardless of the reaction, latte art is capable of adding a little joy to someone’s day, and while that may not be cool, I think it is very worthwhile.