I’ve always been in awe of latte art. We’re spoiled in Seattle, where our coffee culture attracts an echelon of baristas that I only seem to appreciate when I’m traveling to less caffeinated cities. Chances are, the bearded hipster who pulls your espresso shots at the corner café can pour a perfect rosetta with his eyes closed. I wanted to learn how to do the same. So, I spent the entire day making 50 lattes, back-to-back. As it turns out, latte art is really, really hard.
I’ve been serious about espresso for about three years, since I acquired a Rancilio Silvia espresso machine and Rancilio Rocky grinder as a 30th birthday gift. It took me two weeks to pull my first decent shot, two months to pull my first “God shot,” and about six months of daily practice until I was making espresso that consistently my standards. Since then, I’ve upgraded my machine to use a bottomless portafilter (giggidy) and a PID with pre-infusion. The results I get at home are close to (but not quite as good as) the shots I used to pull on Modernist Cuisine’s custom La Marzocco, so I’m satisfied with my level of mastery in shot pulling. I still begin every day with a double shot of espresso and a few grams of muscovado sugar.
However, any time I made a latte, I’d cringe at the results. I am more likely to produce the face of Jesus on my toast than art on my latte. This is frustrating and embarrassing. I have inspected the process of making latte art dozens of times. Grant Crilly taught me the technique when I staged at Modernist Cuisine. I spent the afternoon at Seattle’s La Marzocco office for a photoshoot, peppering their latte artist with technical questions about the process. I’ve read forum posts and watched instructional videos, but every time I attempted the technique myself, the results were a failure by any standard. The missing element, it seems, is practice.
Watching a professional golfer tee off or listening to a virtuoso play a piano sonata might give you the impression that those skills are reserved for a small number of very special human beings. And, yes, there are an elite class of experts in every field who truly do have superhuman talent that comes once-in-a-generation. But for lots of skills – swinging a golf club, playing piano, fly fishing, dancing, DJing, drawing – the element that separates a helpless amateur and a relative expert is the sheer amount of time they’ve spent doing the work.
So, I decided that if I wanted to make any real progress on my latte art skills, I’d need to dedicate some time. I cleared my Saturday schedule, bought 2 gallons of whole milk, and two bags of crappy beans (I wasn’t going to drink these lattes, and I’d hate to waste good beans). I moved my grinder and espresso machine front-and-center in my kitchen and set up my camera. Then, I started steaming, grinding, shot-pulling, pouring, and capturing the results. Because the Rancilio Silvia is a single-boiler machine, there is a fairly long cycle time to switch from steaming temperature to shot-pulling temperature. So, it ended up taking about four and a half hours to make 50 drinks.
I’m proud to report that there’s a definite improvement from beginning to end. My first challenge was getting the milk to steam to the right texture. As you can see, the first handful of drinks don’t have any defined separation between milk-color and coffee-color. I found this video from ChefSteps to be really helpful in improving my milk steaming. But, as with everything related to coffee, the difference between a passing grade and a perfect score is buried in invisible subtlety – the sounds, smells, and turbulence that you only start to notice after repeated attempts.
Once I got my milk steaming to a reasonable state, I could turn my attention to the actual technique of pouring. Again, the ChefSteps video resources were very helpful. As with practicing golf, I tried to pay close attention to my body position: keeping my elbows down, holding the pitcher and cup at a 90-degree angle, and using just my thumb to control the speed of the pour. But, just like a golf swing, the whole motion happens so quickly that, if it’s not second nature already, it’s very difficult to perform cognitively.
Although this was an all-day, milestone activity for me, 50 lattes are but the morning rush for a busy professional barista. Perhaps that’s why even my 50th cup looks like I’m still at my first day on the job. I have a lot more to learn, and every morning will be a new opportunity to practice. We’ll see how my skills improve with the next 50 cups.