Welcome to day 9 of 30. I want to start off today to say my heart is with everyone in the Southeast US and Carribean who have been affected by Hurricane Irma. Stay safe, dry, and I hope recovery is as painless as possible for you all.
Today I want to talk about latte art throwdowns. Last week I was a judge for a throwdown in LA with a pretty large prize to the top three winners. If you have been working in the specialty coffee industry for even a short time you have probably run across a throwdown in your area. These are typically hosted by local cafes or roasters and often sponsored by larger companies such as Nuova Simonelli, Urnex, Cafe Imports, and Pacific Foods. The prizes for winning these small scale competitions can range from free coffee equipment to rather large cash prizes (last week was $600 for first place).
I have seen these events as many things in the past, but generally I consider them a good socializing opportunity as well as a place to show off the skills of the local baristas. Latte art is one of those skills that take time and practice to do incredibly well and it makes sense that there is an outlet for baristas to hone those skills. Having a potential payoff for something you do every day is nice as well, especially when that job does not pay an incredible amount.
I would describe going to a throwdown like this: A bunch of super geeky coffee nerds at various stages of inebriation, relatively loud music, and tense nerves you can almost feel. It is really something to behold.
Obviously there are great things about these usually informal competitive events, but I want to talk about one thing in particular today. The potential negative impacts of latte art throwdowns.
When I say negative impacts, I really mean anything that has a potential detraction from service in a cafe. The primary issue is simply the tendency to overemphasize latte art as a necessity. Yes, latte art should be an expectation of any well trained barista. However the over emphasis on latte art tends to cause newer baristas to be incredibly self conscious about their inability to pour perfect art. Like I said, it takes time to really do well and if a person is discouraged to the point of ignoring their own progress it is no longer useful.
Over emphasis on art has also led to some baristas to forget about making great espresso first. If the foundation of the drink is compromised the rest follows suit. I have tasted so many beautiful lattes that just simply were not good in flavor. While the subconscious impact of latte art does seem improve the perception of drink flavor, the actual flavor (which is in your control) has a lot to do with it as well. Beautiful latte art does not mean the milk is the correct temperature either, which has a massive impact on the flavor of the drink.
Sometimes I like to equate the number of Instagram photos the barista took before serving it to just how bad the drink might be.
Lastly I want to talk about work ethic. We have had a lot of changes to work dynamics in the cafe over the past 10 years or so, but there is one that drives me crazy in particular. It is the lack of willingness to do the job of a barista. So you know, the job of a barista is to not only make tasty coffee, but also to help customers, sweep floors, bus tables, wash dishes, and anything else that must be done. The weird trend here is for a barista to stand next to the espresso machine, and if there are no orders they assume there is nothing to do. Trust me when I say that there is ALWAYS something to do.
My big worry is that a person goes to a latte art throwdown and somehow thinks “This is what it’s like to be a barista!”
It is not.
Throwdowns are an example of isolated skills being given a bit too much credit. I would guess this is because latte art is one of the only truly visible elements of specialty coffee. Since it is so visible it makes sense to use it as marketing and a showcase of skill. Let’s just not forget about the other elements of what we do at the same time.
Now with all of that said, I’m sure you will see me judging a throwdown someday in the near future. Don’t think I am a hater, as I indeed think they are a good tool for the industry in more than a few ways. In fact one of my favorite implementations of latte art events like this are fundraisers. A few years back we had a throwdown party to raise money for a local charity, Noah’s Bandage Project which raises money for children’s cancer research and gives fun bandages to kids who are in hospitals (The idea was created by Noah, who has since passed away). I just saw a throwdown fundraiser put on by Narrative Coffee that was raising funds for victims in Houston after Hurricane Harvey.
These types of events work for me, since the competitors can still get great prizes AND money is raised for a good cause! Additionally, since throwdowns like this are so limited to a single skill, I’m personally ready for new events that showcase other skills. I’ve got a number of cool ideas in mind, so maybe I will talk about those tomorrow…
Thanks for stopping in today,
*note – The latte art picture attached to this blog was found on Wikipedia. If you are the original creator of this image I would love to credit you!