I remember the first time I figured out you could draw pictures in coffee. “It’s art,” the 20-something, dead-eyed barista said, sneering at me, the guileless, primordial plebeian who had no concept of coffee beyond the Peet’s coffee frappe. My worldview was a frappe.
I feel it’s fair to say I’ve come relatively far since then, seeing as I chose to spend this past Monday night amid a crowd at Kreuzberg, California as baristas “threw down” their skills, showcasing the best of the best latte art capital.
You almost have to suspend judgment about latte art because of its contradictory duality. While no one could argue that it requires an elevated level of skill and extreme finesse to carefully craft a 2-inch tulip of perfection, one must also keep in mind the fact that with such prestige comes great responsibility.
Art is one thing; latte art is another. The best latte artists I’ve ever known are humble, do-good people. They serve as mere catalysts for other people’s Instafame. They don’t get to keep the art for themselves. Like westernized medical facilities, coffee art is hastily ripped from its maternal cord, quickly passed over to the cold hands of the likely ungrateful financial advisors of major urbanized cities. Coffee art just isn’t given the time of day.
Kreuzberg’s latte art competition was exactly what you’d expect — but at the same time, it wasn’t. Streaming live, the local crowd gathered around the roastery in the back, where the competition was getting heated. Baristas from around the county gathered to watch the masterpieces.
The fans weren’t as wild as the one Giants game I went to in 2010 but the feeling was the same. Cold sweat. There was friendly cheer, but we knew the stakes were high. It was kind of like that one scene from “The Hunger Games” where Katniss gets called up? Kind of.
This competition didn’t have rules. A man with a paperboy hat was calling all the shots, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.
Then there was friendly fire. Two Kreuzbergers pitted against each other. One took a more standard approach, a simple but effective rosetta. The competitor? His rosetta was a little more experimental. It looked more like a lotus flower. I liked the originality.
This sequence of events begged the question, where do you draw the line with latte art? And an even bigger question, where do you draw the line with beauty?
Obviously, this is “the” question, and in my humble opinion, beauty within coffee and coffee as a field of interest has everything to do with care. And that applies to more than just the shape of the petal. The “perfect cup” requires an understanding of quality, and everything about the way the seeds are picked, sorted though and pulped.
Starbucks doesn’t do latte art. Starbucks is as industrial pipeline as it gets. You’re no more than a number or a misspelled name.
Starbucks’ virtue is that it’s quick and easy, but it doesn’t cater to people who actually like coffee, know anything about it or care about how it’s made. Starbucks is in no way beautiful.
What’s beautiful is knowing that a barista remembered you needed soy before you even mentioned it. Or that they spent 15 minutes devising the ideal blend to make sure you get the right amount of caffeine without feeling like you just tasted hydrogen sulfide. Or that they drew you a little face in your latte’s foam because it was obvious you were having a horrible Tuesday.
Anything can be made immaterial. It’s just about something genuine. This is what “coffee snobs” are concerned with, or what they should be with at least.
The next time you encounter art in your latte, try not to comment on the symmetry — just say thank you.