Espresso Yourself! The Latte Art Guide for the Coffee Obsessed

man serving coffee latte

There are coffee drinkers, and then there are coffee lovers!

Interestingly enough, coffee happens to be America's favorite way to start the day. Because... of course it is!

You might be wondering: 

So, what is our favorite type of coffee?

You likely guessed it. America's favorite type of coffee is the latte! A smooth and creamy, bold, but sweet, latte picks you up like nothing else.

And what's better on a latte than a beautiful piece of art? The secret behind your morning's most beautiful beverage isn't as mysterious as you might think.

What Makes Perfect Latte Art?

If you've ever had a latte at a local coffee shop, chances are you've seen some sort of latte art.


Maybe it's straightforward, like a leaf pattern or a heart. These are little trademarks of a good barista, who's in control of their work. Sometimes, though, latte art surprises and delights us.


Maybe the barista made you something special. It might look like an animal or just a beautiful design.


Or, it could be a little portrait of you!


Either way, you've probably wondered what it takes to make your own latte art.

Design Espresso in a Cup

[Image: Pixabay License, by Pexels, via Pixabay]

Components of latte art

“Presentation is inseparable from the substance.” 

- David Schomer, co-founder of Espresso Vivace

I'll let you in on a little barista secret...


Good latte art means you're about to drink a really good latte!

Latte Lowdown

A latte only requires two ingredients: milk and coffee.

Whether you're a coffee aficionado or you just drink for the caffeine, you probably know that a latte is just milk and espresso. And when you only have two ingredients to work with, both of those need to be top quality.


So what does this have to do with latte art?


Well, when you've pulled your espresso and steamed your milk correctly, they create the perfect canvas for a beautiful latte.


That's because when done correctly, espresso and steamed milk create crema and microfoam. These are the ingredients we will paint with to make our art.

Espresso

First, it helps to know how espresso works.


Espresso is the base of any latte. Making good espresso is an art unto itself. You need to have the proper grind and pack it just the right amount, and to brew it (or "pull") for the right length of time.


Mess up on any of these, and you won't have a good shot of espresso.

The beans and grind:

The best espresso is roasted as close as possible to the day you plan on using it. When you grind, use a conical burr grinder and use about 8 grams of beans for one shot.


Tamp the portafilter:

In a warm portafilter (the metal basket you brew espresso in), tamp your espresso. Just use the strength of your fingers on the tamper — don't pack it too tight, or no espresso will come through!


Pull the shot:

When pulling the shot, try to time between 20 and 25 seconds. This should give you about 1.5 ounces for a single shot.


Note: The stream of espresso is the best indicator of how you've done. If your stream is bubbly and fast, water is going through too quickly. If it's slow and trickling, there's not enough water flow.

Take some time to experiment with grind settings, tamp pressure, and brew time. When your espresso comes out a smooth caramel color, you're on the right track.


What all of this creates isn't just a delicious shot of espresso. It also creates crema. Crema is the caramel colored layer on top of a shot of espresso that indicates a perfect shot.


Here's the kicker:

It is the espresso's contribution to the art you'll make later.

Steamed milk

If espresso is the canvas for latte art, steamed milk is the primer and the paint.


That's right; it plays two parts!


That's because the milk provides a base which mixes with the espresso, while the foam — or microfoam — will lay on top of everything.


When you steam milk, you're looking for smooth, velvety microfoam. This is the perfect medium for latte art because it's bright white and sits lightly on top of the espresso's crema.

Stretch: The first step in steaming milk is known as stretching it. This step incorporates air, which we'll use to create the foam. Pour about six to eight ounces of milk into a metal pitcher.


Put the steam wand on your espresso machine just below the surface of the milk and turn it on. You should hear a sound like paper tearing. The milk will start to froth up, and you should keep the steam wand there until the milk just starts to feel warm.


Roll: Then, push your steam wand deeper into the milk. Angle it around until the milk starts to swirl in a whirlpool. This is called rolling the milk. When the milk feels hot to your hand (it should just be too hot to touch), turn off the wand and pull the milk away.


Swirl: The milk will be smooth on top, and shiny like wet paint. If there are any bubbles, tap the pitcher on the counter and swirl them to incorporate into the milk.


Beautiful!

Now you're ready to make latte art.

Technique


It may not seem like it, but making the latte is the easy part. Getting the milk and espresso to work together takes much more finesse.


Step 1: Start with your espresso in a wide-mouth mug.


Step 2: Make sure to give your milk a swirl to keep the foam incorporated.


Step 3: Hold your pitcher high above the mug and let milk stream down. This will not have any foam in it and will start to mix with the coffee already in the mug. It will start to turn a creamy tan color.


Step 4: After your mug is about one-third to one-half full, lower your pitcher. It should touch the rim of the mug. Tip the pitcher to increase the flow of milk. This will pour the foam across the top of the coffee, which means it's time to start painting!


What happens next depends on what sort of design you're planning on making. Later, we'll cover the main types of latte art, and how to make them.


Correcting your coffee

If you're having issues with getting your latte art perfect, don't worry!


No one gets it right on their first try, and there are a lot of variables. The issue might be in your ingredients, not your technique.


If you can't work out what's wrong, here are a few common issues to try.

correcting your coffee giphy

[From: Giphy]

Pulling the perfect shot


Remember how the stream of espresso is the best indicator of quality? If something is wrong with your lattes, look here first.

Tip 1: If there's too little espresso coming through, check on your tamping. It's a common mistake to press too hard when packing the grounds into your portafilter.


Press down with just your hand, and don't use your full strength.


Tip 2: If that's not it, your grind may be too fine. A fine grind won't let water filter through it as quickly, meaning that the espresso will brew for too long and burn. It'll also result in too little espresso in your shot.


If that's the case, go to your grinder and adjust it. A coarser grind will let water through more quickly and improve your espresso.

But wait, that's not all:


It works the other way, as well!


If water is coming through too quickly, your espresso will look more like drip coffee. It will sputter and bubble coming out of the filter, and result in a more watery shot that is much more than 1.5 ounces. The espresso will also taste bitter.

works the other way giphy

[From: Giphy]

First, make sure you've tamped your shot correctly. You want it to be compact and neat in your portafilter. Then, go to your grinder again. A finer grind will restrict water flow, giving the espresso more time to brew.


Finally, find the pour time that works best for your shot. It may be 20 seconds, or closer to 25. But you should spend some time experimenting to get your perfect shot of espresso.


Be prepared to throw away some shots. They'll take you closer to getting the perfect latte to make art with.


Fortunately, it's not quite as complicated as it sounds. It just takes some experimentation and practice!

Espresso is poured through a filer

[Image: Pixabay License, by Free-Photos, via Pixabay]

Managing your microfoam

While steaming milk is a more involved process, it is much more forgiving than espresso!


Since there are only two parts, it's much easier to find where you've gone wrong.


If your foam is too bubbly, and tapping the pitcher won't help, you need to work on rolling your milk.


The milk should be a rapid whirlpool when you're rolling it, mixing the foam and breaking down big bubbles.

children swimming on a tub with a big bubble

[From: Giphy]

Some milk pitchers have a dome in the bottom, where you can rest your steam wand. This shoots the steam out and gets it whirling.


If you don't have one of these, make sure you're tilting the pitcher and trying new angles. If you can't get it, just practice rolling and don't worry about getting foam. Once you find that sweet spot, it will always work.


What's the bottom line?


If you have too much or too little foam, the issue is in the stretching stage.


First, only insert your steam wand into the milk a little bit. It will be a bit loud, but the "paper tearing" sound means you're doing it right. If you go too far (or not far enough), you won't be creating foam like you need to.


Also, trust your sense of touch and don't be afraid. The milk won't burn you! Use the fatty part of your palm to test the side of the pitcher. When you stop stretching, the milk should be just warm, or around 100 degrees.


If you go too long, you'll actually end up with too much foam. It's great for a cappuccino but won't work so well for a latte.

Where Did the Latte Come From?

Before you get started making something, it's always good to know where it came from. History can tell you a lot about why the latte is popular, and why you usually see only a few different types of art on lattes across the world.


You may be surprised to know where the latte originated. You may also be surprised to find out who helped it spread, and where the humble latte is today.


A brief history of the latte

The history of espresso brings to mind Italian cafes, massive complex machines, and coffee sipped from little cups.


But, if you know that Italians prefer their espresso straight, it might not be a shock that the latte is an American invention.


It may still surprise you to know that it's only been around since the mid-Twentieth century.


While the term "caffe latte," or coffee with milk, has been around in English since 1867, espresso with milk was only introduced in the late 1950s in the United States.

big child drinking on a cup

[From: Giphy]

Latte Lowdown

But in the past 60 years, lattes have seen a meteoric rise. They are the most popular coffee drink in the United States. In fact, as a country, we drank 67 million in 2017.

But how did the latte become the powerhouse we know it is today?


It's all thanks to Seattle coffee culture.

Coffee in the Table

[Image: Pixabay License, by Free-Photos, via Pixabay]


A brief history of the latte


For a few decades, the caffe latte was little more than espresso and milk. Then, baristas in 1986 Seattle started perfecting the process of milk texturing. Once known as velvet foam, this was the birth of the microfoam we all love on our lattes.


The man responsible for making latte art what it is today is a Seattle barista known as David Schomer.


Schomer didn't invent the latte, but he was the first to perfect the two basic patterns: the heart and the rosetta. He started using the recently-developed microfoam technique in his lattes.


The first design he perfected was the simplest — the heart. Schomer developed the heart in 1989 before turning to Italy for inspiration.


His next design, the fern-like rosetta, was inspired by latte artwork in Italy.

"Overcome with the beauty of these patterns, I became obsessed with getting them under control," Schomer said of the rosetta in a 1994 article about latte art.

By 1992, he had perfected the rosetta as well. Thanks to him, the latte became a signature drink in Seattle. But it wasn't Schomer who took the trend nationwide.


That credit goes to a coffee shop we all know — Starbucks Coffee. Starbucks took the latte nationwide, making it a symbol of class and sophistication.


And while Starbucks didn't carry the art with them, many baristas still picked up on the trend.

Soon, everyone saw hearts and rosettas on their lattes, no matter where they got them.


The international world of latte art

It didn't take long for latte art to take off. In fact, it was only around 15 years after the first lattes were being made in Seattle that latte art became an international trend.


By the early 2000s, Australia, the Nordic countries, and parts of Asia were joining in on latte art.


Of course, it was only a matter of time before people started competing over their art.

man making a design on a coffee

[From: Giphy]

There are numerous competitions for baristas from around the world to meet and show off their latte skills.


One competition, the World Latte Art Championship, required competitors to make identical lattes using multiple techniques. Baristas have to show they can make the same drinks more than once, demonstrating control and expertise.


Pieces are judged on creativity, visuals, and how close their pairs match, among other things.


The Coffee Fest Latte Art World Championship Open is a head-to-head competition. Sixty-four baristas go up against each other. A judge determines which is best, eliminating the loser.


Judges in the Coffee Fest base their choices on speed, symmetry, color, clarity, creativity, execution, and presentation. The world of latte art is as complex as any other.


Whether it's a free-for-all bracket tournament or a more meticulous point-scoring process, latte art has evolved into something resembling a competitive sport.

Meet the champ: Caleb Cha

Becoming the world champion of latte art isn't something you can do overnight.


In fact, it'll take you at least 12,000 lattes to get there!


Caleb Cha was a financial consultant in Korea before stress led him to move to Australia. After going to a coffee academy, he started working at a coffee shop.


His boss was the current champion of the Australian state of Victoria, and since Caleb had always wanted to go to art school, latte art seemed like a logical step.


Caleb's training for the 2015 World Latte Art Championships was as intensive as any athlete's.


He made 300 cups of coffee a day, seven days a week, for two months leading up to the championship.


Caleb developed original designs over those two months and 12,000 cups. His design philosophy was simple. "I wanted to make something that wasn't abstract, something the judges could instantly identify," Cha said in an interview with the Korea Herald.


And it paid off.


Cha's "Caffeinated Zebra" took the winning prize, alongside a dragon and a peacock.


So, if you want to be the world champion of latte art, there's never a bad time to start! Just be ready to make thousands and thousands of cups of coffee.

How to Pour at Home

So, now you know the technique, and you know the history of the latte.


But there's one question I'm sure you've been asking.

How do I do it myself?


Well, it's not hard. The hardest part is the equipment.


Of course, the best thing to use is a coffee shop-style espresso machine. One with all the bells and whistles that can pull multiple shots at once steams milk beautifully and has a range of pressure and temperature settings.


But, most people don't have thousands of dollars so unless you work at a coffee shop and want to step up your game, look into an inexpensive home espresso machine.

cat guarding a pile of cash

[From: Giphy]

A decent, low-cost home espresso machine can cost you between $100 and $200. But, it will give you the right pressure for real espresso, and they often come with a steaming wand as well. It's an investment, but it will give you the right tools to get started without blowing out your wallet.


You'll also ideally want a conical burr grinder and a stainless steel pitcher to give you total control over the whole process.

Latte Lowdown

As a side note, there's a chance you've already got a stovetop coffee maker, or moka pot, on your stove. This little device is responsible for one of the best caffe lattes I ever had, but it doesn't actually brew espresso as a machine does.

Keep it for a comforting pick-me-up, but leave it behind if you want to make art.

Free-pouring: Pure latte, all the way


Free-pouring is the most common way to make latte art. It's what you'll see baristas doing in coffee shops and competitions.


But what you can do with it is anything but common.


Free-pouring uses just two tools: the milk pitcher and the coffee mug.


If you remember from earlier, you start with the pitcher high above the mug and let milk stream in. Then, you drop the pitcher to the rim of the mug and let foam pour across the top of the coffee.


If you just do this, you'll end up with a beautiful latte. But it won't have any design! It takes just a little know-how to go from an attractive latte to attractive latte art.


After you master free-pouring techniques, you'll be ready to take on any design you can think of!


Caleb Cha, 2015 World Latte Art champion, uses free pour for all of his patterns. It's all about your imagination, and practice.

The heart

If you'll remember, the heart was David Schomer's first design, perfected in 1989. It makes sense because it's the simplest.


Start with your standard free pouring technique. When you bring the pitcher down to mug level, pour until you see a dot of white foam start to collect.


This is the most important part!


Let the foam build up into a beautiful white circle. Then when your mug is almost full, lift the pitcher and drag a stream of milk back through the foam.


Like pulling a thread through a seam, the milk will pull foam with it and shape the foam into a lovely heart!

Latte Lowdown

Challenge: As beautiful as a simple white heart is, you can step it up a notch! By gently shaking the pitcher left and right, the microfoam will form concentric circles. This gives your heart a beautiful pattern which covers the surface of the latte.

The rosetta

Once you've mastered the heart, it's time to move onto the rosetta. This one is a little more complicated but can create much more striking patterns.


Here's the deal:

The initial process is the same as all free-pours.


When the pitcher is against the mug, and the foam starts to collect, it's crunch time.


Use your hand to start painting the rosetta gently. Don't use your whole arm; focus on your hand only.


Serious Eats recommends a motion like pumping a bike's brakes. This rocking motion will give you smooth yet distinct leaves in your rosetta.


Like the heart, finish the rosetta cleanly by lifting and dragging in the opposite direction. This will create a stem-like line through your rosetta, completing the design.


Rosettas can vary widely, so experiment and find the one that's just right for you!

Congratulations! Once you've mastered these two designs, you can create just about anything.

Etching: Take control of your creativity


Etching is both similar and different to free pouring. Like free pouring, you first need to create a layer of microfoam with which to etch.


With etching, a thin utensil works the same principles as the strand of milk in free pouring. By dragging it through the foam, you can create designs and patterns.


One utensil you can use is a stirrer. Others include toothpicks or metal thermometers.


Once you've laid down your base layer of foam, you can also incorporate other colors. A popular and delicious addition is chocolate syrup!

Latte Lowdown

While etching, it's important to keep a clean bar towel close at hand. Every stroke should be cleaned off your utensil, so you don't contaminate other parts of the latte.

Some etching artists limit themselves to the basics: coffee and milk. While this means your color palette is limited, there's little else it stops you from doing.


If it fits your design, you can even spoon foam onto the latte to make sure it goes exactly where you want.


Etching isn't as direct a process as free-pouring. There are no specific directions, so let your imagination run wild.


Breaking the surface of latte art

foam cat design on a latte

[From: Giphy]


Japanese artist Kazuki Yamamoto has made waves for his foam-based sculptures. Some span two cups, like a cat looking for fish in the other mug. Others reach high out of the mug, like his giraffe.


Daphne Tan, a 17-year-old latte artist, also uses foam to create her sculptures. Not content to stay in the realm of brown and white, Daphne adds color to her pieces. They include clownfish, pizza, and unicorns.


Some even break out of the mug.


If you just want a pretty way to embellish your latte, or you'd like to reach for the sky with foam sculpture, espresso and milk are media limited only by your imagination!


Have a latte art story to share with us, or advice we may have missed? Let us know down in the comments!

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