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.
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.
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.
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.
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!