Latte Art: An Observation

Recently, major coffee chains and even McDonald’s have begun to recognize that latte art communicates quality and are invoking it in advertisements and, in limited cases, in their establishments. This creates an interesting position for those more quality-focused cafes who use the same art, but do not want to be associated with mass chains. An argument can be made that if everyone is doing latte art, it becomes less remarkable and the only thing that will differentiate a cafe’s product is the coffee and drink quality itself, putting the focus back in the appropriate arena. This could result in the trend reversing and the mark of excellent espresso beverage preparation being a drink without intense design focus in order to communicate that the priority is on taste and not appearance. I have already seen this to be the case in several places where a cappuccino will be marked with ringed foam instead of the traditional designs we associate with current latte art. The message is that, yes, it is possible to create a design in this beverage but don’t be distracted by that when you should be focusing on the taste and texture. To understand the almost blindly positive reaction customers have to a drink with latte art and the reasons behind some baristas choice to abandon it, we must look at it’s background and purpose.

First let’s put latte art in it’s proper context: it is a garnish. It is the last preparatory act a barista performs before handing a beverage to a customer, and may be compared to a chef’s work in plating food before sending it out of the kitchen. The art itself does not physically add or take away from the taste of a beverage, but does have the ability to influence the recipient’s perception of it’s quality and the skill of the barista preparing it because people first “eat with their eyes.” Therein lies the power and danger of latte art.

The preparation of a truly great espresso beverage is a meticulous process; one that takes skill, dedication, knowledge, and endless practice. Every action a barista takes before adding the latte art garnish has profound influence on the flavor quality and, when performed accurately, results in an extremely rare experience that is pleasurable to the senses of smell (coffee), touch (warm cup), sound (clinking ceramic), and, of course, taste. Latte art is the barista’s attempt to let sight factor into this equation in an equally powerful way. Poured well, it informs the recipient of the quality beneath. Poured poorly, it makes an otherwise perfect beverage seem unsightly. A delicious drink should be skillfully finished with latte art that validates the beauty and meticulousness of the entire preparation process.

The danger of latte art, therefore, is twofold. Since it is the most powerful tool with which to communicate quality to a customer, the danger is that that communication could be a lie either in the sullying of a delicious drink with poorly executed latte art or in falsely touting high quality in a poorly made drink with beautiful latte art. A barista who pours beautifully but has not taken the appropriate measures to ensure that the drink is made correctly is like having a designer in the kitchen instead of a chef: the food will arrive looking fantastic but will taste like garbage because the designer understands colors and placement but not food preparation and nothing is more disappointing than expecting excellence and being let down when food meets palate.

Where the art itself is concerned, baristas are currently trending toward well-executed, traditional designs over the more the garish and elaborate. There was a time when the mark of skill was considered to be how many rosettas you could fit in a cup or how far around you could get a wave and still put 3 hearts down the middle. Now you see many bairstas appreciating the difficulty of pouring a single, defined, framed rosetta or tulip. These designs appeal to me because they are more practical in a bar situation when I don’t have time to pour intricately and I can still put the mark of excellence on a drink without sacrificing the overall experience by causing unnecessary wait times in a line of customers. As a result, I will be taking an ideological stance by pouring a simple rosetta in a cappuccino at Coffee Fest this year – nothing too over-the-top and something that I can take back to my bar when I’m through practicing.

Whatever a barista pours, though, he/she must take appropriate steps in the appropriate order and realize that greatness is expected of a visually appealing drink. When a customer sees exceptional latte art, it sets in motion a chain reaction of expectation until the moment of truth when they raise the cup to their lips. Never forget that it is a powerful tool when used appropriately. With great power comes great responsibility and a beautifully poured drink with garbage underneath is a lie.

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6 Comments on “Latte Art: An Observation”

  1. Alex Redgate
    11/01/2010 at 11:08 am #

    Great post mate, I love pouring latte art, for me it’s the garnish for the customer but it’s my way of flairing aswell. Having fun with the creation of the beverage.

    My bigger worry about chains introducing latte art is that when these places serve inferior coffee presented with latte art the customer loses the association between latte art and quality in the cup.

    I think that fear shan’t be recognised for a while though. McDonald’s still can’t make a burger look like it does on the marketing so I won’t be worrying about a McBarista pulling off a 8 heart tulip for some time 😉

    • 11/01/2010 at 3:34 pm #

      Well said Ryan. When I was in London at a certain well known coffee shop, I noticed the latte art in my flat white was not phenomenal- however, the flat white was. I can certainly think of better designs a have had in worst lattes.

  2. 11/01/2010 at 4:41 pm #

    Taste aside,… let’s look at the chef analogy again. Take the same food, plate it differently, which one is going to tip off a customer that the person in the back knows what they’re doing? Skip to baristas- I pour wave tulips for every 12 oz latte that’s in porcelain in my cafe and I NEVER get a customer asking me, “did you do that on purpose?” like I would with a heart. I’ll expand on all of this in a future post; pardon the pun but it’s just some food for thought.

    • 11/01/2010 at 6:13 pm #

      This is exactly what I mean when I say that crappy art can sully a good drink just as good art on a terrible drink is misleading. I’d like to make the case that a barista should give due diligence to every part of preparation, ending with fine art on a delicious drink. No part of preparation should be discounted or given to laziness, art included.

  3. 11/05/2010 at 12:15 pm #

    Nice topic. It is now a few years that I work with many different companies of all sorts, big or small. Latte Art is double, although I consider it a big step towards creating more respect for the Barista in general. Latte Art is not a guaranty for good taste; however, it does require a good texture of the milk if you want to pour a well-defined pattern on top of your drink. Good texture of your milk creates a better taste already. Therefore, even if big chains would create Latte Art from a selling point only, their people will become a better barista in the process. Therefore, real coffee bar owners and coffee specialists will raise the bar also! The winner will be the costumer, good for the whole industry. Also, if the taste isn’t great, only pretty Latte Art, people will react on buying their drink elsewhere where the taste is superb, regardless the look. Nevertheless, if they find a place where the atmosphere, the people, and the drinks are of the best possible looks and taste, that is the place witch they will be most likely choosing ! When training people, we aim for quality in the drink, speed of service, hygiene and a friendly smile on the face, great results guaranteed with your costumers. Latte Art, not seen as the art of latte, but as the drawing of a picture, is a great bonus on a qualitative drink. Consider that qualitative espresso and qualitative milk + a passionate barista who prepares both in the best possible manner  equals top-notch results.

  4. Will Frith
    02/15/2011 at 2:02 pm #

    During Espresso 101, I show students the folly of valuing the look of a drink before making sure it tastes good. I simply put some grounds from the counter into a cup (about 10g), mix with hot water (go for choc syrup texture), steam milk and pour a beautiful tulip into it and ask “why wouldn’t you drink that? It’s got a pretty top on it…” Questions like “when are we going to learn to pour designs?” are immediately squashed and appropriate attention is given to espresso. I also revert to gross analogies like using cake icing to dress up a pile of poop. The point is driven home like whoa. I do love your analogy of the designer-in-the-kitchen, though. I may steal that…

    Hi guys. The blog gets better and better every time I visit. Keep up the great work!

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