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Coffee drinkers show their latte love with artistic creations
By Cari Tuna | The Wall Street Journal

Baristas have been doing latte art for years, even competing at the 2008 United States Barista Championship. Now, thanks to how-to videos and even classes, amateurs are trying it too.


Courtesy of Intelligensia Coffee

Baristas have been doing latte art for years, even competing at the 2008 United States Barista Championship. Now, thanks to how-to videos and even classes, amateurs are trying it too.


Courtesy of Intelligensia Coffee

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Published: 8/19/2008 12:09 AM

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For the past eight months, Wayne Mathias has been perfecting his pour.

Every morning, the 47-year-old San Francisco legal-records analyst makes a cup of espresso, froths some milk and then decants it into the cup with a rhythmical flicking motion. When all goes well, the delicate white swirls form a heart or a fernlike leaf called a "rosetta." Sometimes he gets a formless blob instead.

"I don't know what that is," said Mathias one recent morning, staring at an amorphous lump of foam in his cup. He has experimented with different brands of milk to improve his success rate. Now he's considering upgrading his $400 espresso machine to a $1,200 model.

Once an obscure skill practiced by a handful of baristas, latte art is invading the home. Amateur artists have posted thousands of photos and videos of leaves, flowers and swans made in foam, on Web sites like YouTube, Rate My Rosetta and CoffeeGeek.

Coffee shops offer classes in creating designs, and latte artists organize contests, or "throw downs," in which amateurs challenge each other, as well as local professionals. Espresso-machine vendors are doing a brisk business in special pitchers and custom steam tips that are affixed to machines to aid milk frothing. One online retailer says sales of its $79 "Latte Art Beginner's Pack," with instructional DVD, frothing pitcher and milk thermometer, are up 65 percent this year.

The pastime is not for those with weak wills - or shallow pockets. High-end home espresso machines sell for as much as $7,000. Beginners can go through multiple gallons of milk a week as they practice.

One technique involves making elegant designs by jiggling the pitcher while pouring milk into espresso; another calls for a toothpick or thermometer to draw shapes like animals and faces in a drink's foam after it is poured.

Coffee experts say latte art originated in Italy, the birthplace of espresso. In the U.S., latte art was largely unknown until the late 1980s, when Seattle coffee-shop owner David Schomer caught the bug. He says he had long admired the rippling patterns made as buses rattled his roadside coffee cart, shaking his hand as he poured cappuccinos and lattes. Then he saw photographs of Italian rosettas in a coffee magazine and became obsessed with mastering the technique.

Schomer released an instructional video in 1995 that sold thousands of copies and sparked a wave of interest among professional American baristas. It took YouTube and home videos to bring the subtle milk-pouring moves to the masses.

One key to latte art is the consistency of the milk. Larry Cohen, a vice president at Microsoft Corp., has spent months working on it. When the milk is foamed just right, he says, it feels like using a pencil when pouring it.

In his quest for the perfect cappuccino, Cohen has read books, watched a how-to DVD and set up a private lesson on "fundamentals" with a barista in his Bellevue, Wash., home. "It's kind of like making wine," he says. "There are so many different variables." But the software executive says that even after a year, he's still not ready to focus on latte-art designs, though he doodles with milk and has "perfected the amoeba."

Some aspiring artists concentrate on the pour. First-timers mistakenly think they can paint the design on top of the coffee, says Nicholas Lundgaard, a 23-year-old software engineer in Houston, who took up latte art three years ago after seeing photos on the CoffeeGeek Web site. Actually, it's "a fluid canvas, where shapes fan out from the place you're pouring," he says.

Lundgaard spent evenings hunched over his espresso machine, studying exemplars on YouTube and rehearsing his "wiggle," the back and forth motion of the hand pouring milk. To avoid wasting costly milk, Lundgaard practiced with water, switching to milk every now and then to gauge his progress.

Another foam artist, Milwaukee pathologist Robert Hall, says he had to pour five or six drinks a day for a year before he could get a rosetta right every time. One big obstacle was his wife's preference for skim milk, which produces stiffer, less yielding foam than milk with lots of fat, he says.

Not everyone wants to suffer for their art. After seeing a latte-art video, Oleksiy Pikalo, a 31-year-old electrical engineer from Somerville, Mass., decided there had to be an "engineering approach." Using a kit and spare parts found on eBay, he built a programmable computer printer that stamps designs on foamed drinks in edible brown ink.

Pikalo presented his invention at a national computer-graphics conference last week and has started a company, OnLatte, to sell his machine, at a tentative price of $1,500.

Not everyone likes the direction latte art is heading. Espresso connoisseurs complain that too many people focus on the art, at the expense of what's underneath.

Chris Baca, a Western Regional Barista Championship winner, who routinely pours shapes in customers' cups, says he's tiring of latte-art buzz. "It's part of what we do, but we like to focus more on the coffee," he says. "You could have a drink that's totally beautiful with the most amazing design - and tastes like garbage."