Art in a coffee cup
What is the similarity between rainbows, rays of a sunrise emanating from the skies, the suppleness of a flower in bloom and a latte ... sounds confounded and unrelated ... but the similarity is their beauty and that 'wow' moment, which pleases the eye.
Latte art, a creation from two simple ingredients, steamed milk and shot of espresso, is foaming up the coffee cups with expressions that are as refreshing as this brew itself.
"It is all in the wrist," says Asheena Butler, a Barista at the Toyota Jamaica CafÈ, as she meticulously poured steamed milk into a clear white coffee mug, over espresso.
Butler gravitated to this art form when she started working as a server in a cafÈ. "I fell in love with how the designs were being created," the self-taught latte artist said.
This is a creation that has a short lifespan but it takes some effort to master the artistry of combining the two ingredients. Perseverance and patience are the keys, but there is a fair amount of science and law of proportions involved.
Latte art is a mixture of two colloids (in simpler terms, this is when dispersed insoluble particles of one substance are suspended throughout another substance); in this case, the crema, which is an emulsion of coffee oil and brewed coffee; and the microfoam, which is milk foam.
Before the wrist starts its coordinated movement, the ingredients have to be meticulously and proportionately prepped.
The key to getting the layers to create art on the brim is to get a creamy brown surface on the espresso shot, which is the crema. The white foam from the milk is poured on to the reddish-brown surface of the espresso; this creates a contrast and the design emerges.
Two methods used
There are two methods that are employed - free pouring and etching.
While the free pouring, as the name suggests, is a technique where the milk is poured into the cup to create a design, in etching, a design is created by the movement of a stirrer. In Butler's case, a chopstick comes in handy.
"It is not as easy as it might look," Butler said. "The espresso cup has to be tilted or kept straight, and the milk pitcher has to be moved from side to side. The key is in the right the movement and the right amount of milk that needs to be poured in the right way to form the pattern."
Consistency is the biggest challenge, as the process is both demanding and requires time, effort, experience, and endless trial and error.
Butler, who dreamt of being an artist, couldn't follow her dreams because she was laughed at whenever she would start to draw something, has found her calling in a coffee cup. She wants to continue learning and creating new designs to wow coffee drinkers.
But, she said, the art element is just on the surface.
"One needs to know about the coffee itself," she said. "You have to please someone who is a coffee drinker, and if, as a barista, I don't know my coffee, I would not be able to differentiate or explain to the customer what goes into that cup, and why."
The beans have to be properly ground, she said. If they are too fine, then the coffee would be bitter; if they are coarse, then the coffee would be sour.
"At the end of the day," Butler said, "it is about the coffee. A pretty design is nice, but if the coffee doesn't taste good, it would not be a job well done."