Latte Art: A Love Story

My coffee beverage of choice is a single origin brewed with a Hario V60, but my journey into specialty coffee began with a sweet, flavored latte. It wasn’t the espresso, or even the milk texture; both were on point, but my taste buds couldn’t tell with all that sugary syrup.

The thing that got me hooked, that grabbed my attention and told me this is something different”, was latte art.

Espresso Vivace, Seattle, Washington

It wasn’t even a particularly good pour, just a simple heart, a little tilted, but it was unlike anything I had ever seen. Imagine going through life, thinking that every latte is topped with a solid white chunk of foam, and then you see this blending and intermingling of color. That coffee woke me up, and not in the usual way.

This was my beginning, and from that moment in 2010 my love of latte art has taken me to coffee shops, coffee magazines, even coffee conventions. Ever since I started brewing espresso at home, I’ve been learning the subtle art of free pour latte art.

A photo posted by Matt (@fotobymatt) on

Thanks to the Coffee Fest workshop last month, I’m better able to understand what’s going on in the cup, and by focusing on a few key points I am starting to get better. There are a few fundamentals that you won’t get just watching videos on Instagram and Youtube, so for the benefit of my few readers who don’t already practice free pour, here are some pointers…

Latte Art Fundamental #1: Milk Texture

This is key. Without proper, consistent milk texture, pouring any style of latte art is limited to luck. One of the biggest reasons for upgrading my home espresso setup was to get a better steam wand, and it helps a lot. But until I received some one-on-one training at Coffee Fest, I was struggling to find the right technique. There are many ways to steam milk, but Michael Ryan taught me to focus on one method that produces the easiest, most consistent results. Key Point: your milk surface should be glossy If the milk in my pitcher looks dull and flat, my pour isn’t going to be smooth. When I get an even distribution of micro bubbles, the texture is spot on and the milk is a glossy paint. Not only does this make latte art possible, but it gives a better mouthfeel and taste in the cup.

A photo posted by Matt (@fotobymatt) on

Latte Art Fundamental #2: Distance

Free pour latte art is all physics. Greater distance between your milk pitcher and the surface of the espresso means greater velocity in the pour, and the milk dives under the crema with ease. Shorten that distance, get the pitcher close to the surface, and suddenly the milk flows out over the top, pushing the crema aside and creating visual separation.

It sounds simple, but it is so easy to forget after the initial drop. Pay attention to the actual distance from spout to crema. My worst habit is dropping down, but moving further from the edge of the mug (afraid of spilling) and not getting close enough to the surface to allow separation. Right now I try to focus on getting as close to the crema as possible without tilting too far and overflowing.

A photo posted by Matt (@fotobymatt) on

Latte Art Fundamental #3: Speed

The final point of focus for free pour latte art is speed, how fast is your milk pouring into the cup. A slower pour creates a finer stream of milk and allows that high pour to dive below the crema without disturbing the surface. When you get close to the surface, you need speed to help your milk push into the crema, to gather some momentum and fill the cup without getting backed up at the edge.

I find this challenging, primarily because I don’t want to overflow the cup. But the more I practice, the less afraid I am, and aside from a few minor drops I haven’t made a mess at home.

The key word there is practice.

Since Coffee Fest I’ve made some great progress, but I don’t get enough practice at home to build up the muscle memory needed for really awesome technique. Hopefully I can get into a routine, practice more and develop some skill, but for now I have to take it slow and focus on milk texture, distance, and speed.

Readers: are you new to latte art? Share your experience in the comments or on facebook!

Easy Homemade Mocha

If you’ve ever tried to introduce a non-coffee-loving friend to espresso drinks, a mocha is usually a safe place to start. Practically just a hot chocolate with espresso, a cafe mocha is usually the least coffee-tasting option on many coffeehouse menus. Add in some whipped cream and a generous drizzle of chocolate sauce, and it’s no wonder the mocha acts as a perfect gateway into espresso-based drinks.

To be honest, I still order a mocha (either hot or iced) at many of my favorite specialty coffee shops. Some of the best make their own mocha sauce, sometimes using local or specialty-grade chocolate, and my wife loves to ask “do you make your own mocha sauce?” when visiting a new place for the first time. If the answer is yes, then we’re getting a mocha for the table, regardless of what other drinks we might order.

Axum Coffee, Winter Garden, Florida

So while I’ve been having fun practicing on our new espresso machine, trying my hand at latte art and all that fun stuff that makes you feel like a rockstar, my wife is always asking when I’m going to make her a mocha at home. Not wanting to resort to store-bought chocolate sauce, I kept putting it off, waiting until I could find a recipe and make something from scratch. Using a recipe from The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee as a guide, I set out to create our first homemade mocha sauce using just water and dark chocolate.

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I used Green & Black’s Organic Dark 70% Cocoa Chocolate Bar, breaking it into small chunks, then adding boiling water and stirring until the chocolate was completely melted. Dark chocolate is my preference, for a richer cocoa flavor without all the extra sugar, but this was definitely less sweet than the average mocha I’ve had outside the house.

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This luscious chocolate sauce was divided between our two mugs so that I could brew the shots of espresso directly over it. For the first attempt, I stirred the chocolate and espresso after pulling the shot, but I got lazy and skipped that step on the next drink. The result was interesting, as layers of chocolate crept up into the latte art as I poured. Both tasted delicious, and since I did not divide the sauce evenly between the two cups, it’s hard to say if stirring before adding steamed milk played a big part in the flavor.

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I’ve made this sauce twice so far, not really measuring the ingredients, just going for a certain consistency in the chocolate. The recipe in The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee calls for 1/4 cup of boiling water to around 3 oz chocolate, but I’ve been more liberal with the water, producing a sauce that probably blends easier with the espresso, given my lazy approach. On average I probably used 1 oz of chocolate per drink, but with our large mugs I could definitely use more.

I look forward to trying other brands of chocolate, and different percentages of cocoa solids, to see how the taste balances with espresso and milk. Most of all, I’m just excited at how easy it is to make. As long as I have a few ounces of chocolate on hand, I can crank out a mocha. I’ll have to keep this in mind next time we host one of our non-coffee-loving friends.

My Home Espresso Setup

I’m having a lot of fun pouring lattes at home lately. This is good news, as I had drifted into a sort of espresso-funk after struggling to adjust after upgrading our home espresso bar. With a new baby at home, I did not choose the ideal time to shift from my beginner espresso machine to something much more powerful, but now I’m maintaining almost daily practice and I’m enjoy it so much more than ever before.

So thought this was as good a time as any to talk about the machine I use, as well as the one it replaced…

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My Beginning: the Breville era

I’ve read somewhere that Breville makes pretty-looking kitchen gear, and I have to agree. Their line of espresso machine run the gamut from super-entry level to the Double Boiler, and all of them are well designed. I took the plunge into making espresso at home by grabbing the Breville Infusor after reading good reviews, and at the time I bought a matching Breville Smart Grinder and knock box to complete the set.

It was not a bad place to start learning, but after completely a barista training class at Coffee Fest, I went home to test out my new skills and found several issues. First, I could not get my coffee ground fine enough to avoid under-extracted shots. I traded a computer for a new grinder, a Mazzer Mini with electronic dosing, and it made a world of difference. Now I was working with a stepless grinder, using flat burrs instead of conical ones, and getting more uniform particle size.

I started pulling some awesome shots with the Breville, and it proved to me that a good grinder is far more important than a good espresso machine. There were other issues, namely the steam pitcher and included tamper that came with the Infusor. I ordered professional tools to replace them and drink quality continued to improve.

The one thing that kept bothering me, however, was the steam wand itself. It would take at least a minute to steam milk for a single latte, and as a single boiler unit, it was not possible to steam while pulling a shot of espresso. Milk first, or espresso first? I had to make a choice, knowing whichever one came first would start to degrade immediately, and since steaming was so slow, I chose to prepare the milk before grinding, dosing, tamping and pulling the shot of espresso into the mug. As a result, I always lost a bit of texture as the fat worked to destabilize the foam, and I longed for improved steaming options.

It was time to upgrade.

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My Renaissance: the Nuova Simonelli era

I cannot tell you how long I debated such an investment in our home coffee bar, but it has been worth every penny. After learning on an Aurelia II at Coffee Fest, Jamie and I wandered around the Nuova Simonelli booth drooling over the beautiful machines, and I chatted with one of their reps about options for home. I was looking at the Appia single group, but that required plumbing, so he introduced me to the Musica, which comes in either a plumped or pour-over (tank filled) model. Some months later, I made up my mind and went for it, and the very heavy box you see in the photo above arrived at my office.

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Nuova Simonelli Musica

The Musica is a beautiful machine, significantly larger than my previous Breville, but the power is outstanding. It is a heat exchanger, which means it operates via a single boiler, pulling fresh water through the heated boiler to brew espresso, while the water in the boiler itself goes to the steam wand. This is the same design I experienced when using the much larger Aurelia II, and it allows for nearly unlimited steam, even while pulling shots of espresso.

Simply put: I love it!

But it wasn’t love at first sip. I had adapted what I learned at Coffee Fest in order to get the best results possible from the Breville, and I mistakenly assumed that I could jump on the new machine and just crank out the drinks. My expectations were much too high, and the initial struggles when hit with the power this beauty delivers meant I had to unlearn my own habits.

It’s taken me some time to really feel at home on the Musica, and with work and family life constantly busy, I went through a few periods where I didn’t feel up to dialing in the grinder and cleaning up after a bad tamping job sent streams of water at odd angles through the portafilter. But now that I’m practicing every day, I’m actually producing some lattes I can be proud of.

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What I love about the Musica

These are my absolute favorite things about the Nuova Simonelli Musica:

  1. Ability to steam milk while pulling a shot of espresso – I’m finally making drinks efficiently, and that’s more fun than practicing latte art! Being able to pour the milk only seconds after the espresso is producing much better flavor and texture, as neither espresso nor steamed milk has any time to sit and lose character. This alone makes it worth the investment, as I never finish a drink and think “man, I wish I had something better to work with.”
  2. Can produce a drink in as little as 30 seconds – If I work very quickly, it’s possible to crank out drinks with this machine. The thing that slows me down the most is knocking the used coffee puck out and then rinsing the portafilter, wiping it to make sure it’s dry before grinding for the next cup. Compare this to the Breville, where I would spend at least a minute steaming milk, then at least 30 seconds preparing and brewing the shot of espresso, and it’s easy to feel more satisfied working with professional equipment.
  3. Steam wand is VERY powerful – The first time I steamed milk on the Musica, it blew me away. I was using a thermometer, as I had been on the Breville, and I watched the needle climb from 140º to 160º after shutting off the steam, just as it did on the Musica’s bigger siblings. I’ve found it easiest to get good results without fully opening the valve, especially on smaller drinks, and the level of control afforded by the steam lever makes it a joy to work with.
  4. Finally, I have the option of a bottomless portafilter – This was on my wish list, and I’m glad I ordered one to go with my machine. Being able to see the quality of the shot, to watch for problems in my tamping, is just invaluable. I still have a lot to learn, but at the very least, I have the potential of capturing a really beautiful shot.

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