Last Thursday I went to my first Latte Art Competition. It was a Latte Art THROWDOWN, to be exact, presented by Los Angeles Thursday Night Throwdown, aka LATNT, at Fix Coffee in Echo Park. It was a community event, bringing together people from some of the finest coffee shops on the Eastside. There were competitors from Fix, Intelligentsia, Coffee Commissary, Cafe Dulce, and Handsome Coffee among others.
Does it seem like a room full of coffee geeks and TOMs-wearing baristas would be all macho about pouring the perfect rosetta design into a latte? The answer is yes. Yes they would. A throwdown? There may be no sweaty announcer a la Randy Savage, but spectators and competitors alike were just as amped. Everyone would crowd in to see the drinks handed off at the end of the bar, and cheered for first-time pourers. One guy even brought his own milk pitchers. We also were well-fed and well-equipped to party and pour some drinks. Everyone chipped in. There were donations from Two Boots Pizza, Golden Road giving us some tall boy cans of Point the WAY IPA and the GR Hefeweizen, accessories from LA Coffee Club, which ships locally roasted coffee to its subscribers, amazing samples from Verve Coffee Roasters, and contest beans supplied by Beyond the Grind.
How does it work?
Two baristas go head-to-head, splitting a double shot of espresso into two 8oz cups, while each of them steams their milk. After they pour their magic, they shuffle it over to the panel of discerning judges, usually to a chorus of “oohs” from the onlookers. Then the winning cup is declared by a fist on the table. In the event of a tiebreaker, the judges call out a new shape (rosetta, tulip) or new milk (nonfat). (There were several threats of “Soymilk,” which always garnered a laugh.) So it goes on to the final round, when the winner takes home a big pot of money from the entrance fees. And who doesn’t want free beer money? That would make my week.
The LATNT is the ground floor into the world of specialty coffee competitions.
From there it goes on to Barista Nation, and the U.S. and World Barista Championships. In the upper echelons it is more complicated. Competitors must pour a single espresso, a cappuccino and a signature drink for multiple sensory & technical judges. It’s easy to scoff at, but it’s just as serious as any cooking or pastry competition. Brewing coffee is a science, and its very easy to tarnish the taste of these delicately roasted beans when placed in the wrong hands. The beauty of local roasters like like Jones Coffee in Pasadena and Handsome Coffee in Downtown LA, is that they bring coffee to the height of wine. The flavor descriptors on that $5 single-origin cup of coffee is no bullshit. You really can smell and taste the caramel, hazelnuts, and even sage or strawberry. Terroir is not just for wine.
So if one day you find yourself invited to a Latte Art Competition by that barista friend, do yourself a favor and check it out. You’ll meet some good people having a good time. And feel free to wear flannel.
This round of Thursday Night Throwdown began in January. Finals will be in November. Stay tuned!