Posted in Kafevend Blog

Coffee and art are subjects that have coincided before on the blog. Gerard Tonti was a name we explored; the American artist uses both tea and coffee to create a palette that he uses to paint scenes from coffee shops. Then there was Rob Draper, a talented artist and designer who uses paper coffee cups as a canvas for his coffee themed art. Perhaps the most obvious example of art and coffee is latte art. Incredibly, it's an area we haven't visited yet, so today's the day to plug the gap and discover more about the art form that is intrinsic to coffee itself.

It wasn't until coffee made its appearance in Europe that the idea of adding milk to it was born. The latte came on the scene much later still in the 1950s, when an Italian coffee shop owner in California developed the drink for a number of his customers who found his traditional Italian coffee far too strong without the addition of plenty of milk. The latte is a combination of a shot of espresso and steamed milk with a layer of foamed milk at the top. Latte is Italian for milk, so by rights the drink we order is a caffè latte. If you've ever been served your latte with an artistic flourish on top, then it's highly likely you were in the presence of a barista who'd been honing their skills for quite some time; competent latte art takes a lot of practice.

There are two varieties of latte art: free pouring and etching. In the case of the first, steamed milk is poured through the espresso in such a way that patterns are created in the top layer. The espresso essentially acts as the canvas and the milk is the paint. Watching footage of baristas creating their art is a little like watching a good magician perform a trick. The same dexterity and sleight of hand is at work. A subtle tip of the cup, a minute wave of the hand and hey presto, there's suddenly a flower, a heart or a beautiful fern in the coffee!

Free pouring latte artists have various dynamics to control. Seemingly the height from which the milk is poured is a crucial aspect, as is the rate of flow, not to mention the position at which the milk enters the espresso. This is a case of serious multi-tasking and while free pouring requires absolute mastery of technical skills, the other method of producing latte art is no less demanding. Etching is reliant on artistic flair. A sharp implement such as an awl or a toothpick is used to draw with and the microfoam on top of the coffee needs to be just the right consistency. Then, anything from a spider's web pattern to a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen can be drawn into the coffee, dependent on the aforementioned artistic talent of course!

As you might expect, there is an annual competition to find the world's top latte artist. This year's winner was German barista, Christian Ullrich. Competitors aim to produce two identical free pour lattes, two identical free pour macchiatos and finally two identical designer patterned lattes where the etching technique can be used. The UK heats for next year's competition in Sweden will shortly be taking place in London on Saturday 13th December, so if latte art has tickled your fancy it's a little late to be thinking about world domination in 2015, but 2016? ... Go for it!

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