A steady hand holds a pint of milk above a cup of coffee as tiny bubbles begin to form and the scent of espresso fills the air. Slowly, the barista pours the milk into the center of the latte and allows it to spread. The barista then gently curves the milk into two seperate directions. Once the milk has settled, a heart design appears, and the beverage is ready to serve.
Latte art is created when a barista pours milk foam onto a latte and then uses tools to form aesthetically pleasing designs. According to the Barista Institute, Italy, a country known for the creation of milk-based espresso drinks, takes the credit for combining coffee with visual art a few decades ago. However, the growth of mainstream latte art is credited to coffee shops across the United States with help from social media.
Shortwave Coffee keeps up with the trend by forming designs on lattes they serve. Popular designs include a heart, a leaf and a tulip. Their baristas are trained and continually work to improve their latte art skills. Ben Comfort, a barista at Shortwave, has been constantly working on his latte art technique since joining the staff in August of 2019.
“Our manager trains the baristas how to do the task and from there it becomes trial and error,” Comfort says. “It takes about one to two months to accomplish if you are only focusing on one design.”
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the baristas have missed out on creating art for customers to enjoy. But, coffee addicts now have the chance to discover that the only thing more enjoyable than receiving a special piece of coffee art might be learning how to create the art themselves.
Latte art is not a skill that can be mastered in a matter of hours. Successfully creating any design takes time, and even then, it's hard to achieve perfection. Comfort recommends watching YouTube videos for help.
“Trying to make a shape in general is hard, and at first it makes a blob that's almost like looking at the clouds,” Comfort says. “No matter how long you have been practicing, you always have to work at it.”
Make your own
Although Shortwave begins their process by using a fancy in-house espresso machine, you can make a latte from your own kitchen with a simpler espresso machine or a French press.
The first step of the process is making your espresso or strongly brewed coffee and steaming the milk. A milk frother or steamer is ideal, but if you don't have special equipment, you can steam milk at home. Shake up a glass of milk and microwave it for about 30 seconds. The foam will rise to the top of the milk and the heat from the microwave will help stabilize it. The milk portion of the latte is what helps the design stay in place.
“The most important part is the milk needs to be consistent,” Comfort says. “If the milk is not consistent, the design will not be able to work.”
Pour as much warm milk as you would like into the espresso, using a large spoon to hold back the milk foam. Stop pouring and remove the spoon. Holding the milk high above the coffee cup, gently pour the remaining milk and foam into the middle of the espresso until a solid white circle appears. Once the milk lies on the surface of the drink, use a toothpick to cut through the center to form a heart. Now, you have a photo-ready latte.
Baristas make it look easy, and your first try probably won't be flawless. Although Shortwave is operating under COVID-19 restrictions, those who are not as confident in their coffee art skills can still enjoy a cup made by a talented barista. The coffee shop has opened up its outdoor seating area and is using contactless payment. If you can't make it to the physical shop, you can use DoorDash to order Shortwave products to their doorstep.
But if you're feeling bold, try your hand at latte art and see if you have patience, consistency and talent it really takes to create a top-notch cup.