Latte Art: A Quick Explanation
We’ve all walked into a local coffee shop to order a latte and received a beautiful flower, heart, or leaf design. These designs are popular and leave many casual coffee drinkers scratching their heads. How does the barista make these appealing patterns by simply pouring milk into espresso?
Depending on the milk, the espresso, and the design, there are several ways to produce latte art. Most of the time it involves pouring milk into espresso, but there are some baristas that use toothpicks (etching) to make even more complex designs. Latte art is fun to do and makes the coffee drinking experience even more enjoyable.
While there is no official date for the invention of latte art, it didn’t become widespread until the 1980s. While there were probably primitive versions of it before then, the first American to perfect the technique was David Schomer, the barista of Espresso Vivace. Around the same time in Italy, Luigi Lupi also perfected the technique.
Most coffee houses quickly followed suit, leading to experimentation and creativity among skilled baristas. What started out as simple leaves and hearts quickly became an obsession for some. By the 90s, coffee shops around America would try their hand at latte art, and some groups even organized barista competitions.
Why Baristas Make Latte Art
Latte art is largely just for show. The designs are interesting, and coffee drinkers love seeing the neat, smooth milk pour into the espresso to unfurl into a leaf. It’s a sign that the barista knows what they’re doing, and that they’re putting all of their effort into the drink.
Another byproduct of latte art is that it requires perfectly steamed milk. If there’s too much or too little foam, the milk won’s pour properly. So the next time you get a perfectly crafted hear or swan on your latte, know that the milk was steamed to perfection.
How To Make Latte Art
Just like any craft, latte art takes practice. A barista can have thousands of failed attempts at coffee art before they truly perfect it. But understanding the basics can make any home barista ready to start pouring hearts into their drinks.
While a skilled barista can make latte art with drip coffee, chocolate milk, tea, or any colored liquid, most late art uses espresso. The white milk contrasts with the brown crema of the espresso, making it possible to “draw” shapes onto it. The most skilled latte artists can effortlessly embellish their drinks with hearts, leaves, and even more complicated patterns.
The first step is to have a rich, medium or long pulled espresso shot. The milk needs to have dense, well incorporated foam. Cappuccinos and flat lattes can’t really have intricate art, so make sure your milk has the right balance. Then, pour slowly, making sure not to get bubbles in the milk or the crema. Once you’ve gotten the pouring technique down, you can begin to incorporate shapes into your beverages.
Beginners almost always start out trying to make a heart or a leaf. You’ll notice when properly pouring milk into coffee that a circle of foam forms around the milk. By gently working the pur, you can pull the milk through that circle to make a heart. This simple process is relatively easy to do, but takes a lot of practice to do every time.
Many expert latte artist actually pour their milk into multiple spots to get multiple figures. Others will use toothpicks to add more flare to their designs. Once you really understand how to do latte art, there’s room for creativity and exploration. Next time you’re at your local coffee shop, pay attention to how the barista crafts their designs.
Pulling The Perfect Espresso Shot
Espresso is the light brown canvas for latte art. For good art, having an ideal espresso shot is the key. A single shot of espresso should weigh an ounce, or more for a long pull. A standard latte has 2 ounces of espresso and 10 ounces of milk, which is the minimum amount of espresso needed for good latte art.
Espresso can be broken into three parts. The first two layers, the body and the heart, are what give espresso its dark flavor. But the top layer, the crema, is where latte art happens. You want a nice, thick layer of crema, which is why you want to avoid stopping your espresso shot short. Having a generous layer of crema will let you easily work latte art into your drink.
How To Properly Steam The Milk
Of course, the cornerstone of latte art is steamed milk. Getting the right consistency and aeration of your milk takes time and practice, but there are a few steps that beginners can take to better understand milk steaming.
Most coffee houses steam their milk between 140 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This is mostly for practical purposes, since milk pasteurized at 135 degrees and burns at 180 degrees. In order to strike a balance between health safety and to avoid burning, this range has become standard.
Depending on the type of milk you use, different temperatures are best for latte art. The standard 140-160 range works perfectly for low-fat milk, but can actually be too hot for non-dairy drinks or for non-fat milk. More fat-heavy milks like whole milk and half and half might need to be even hotter.
Aeration is what causes milk to foam. When using a steam wand, the barista will submerge the wand just below the surface of the milk. This allows for some air to be incorporated into the milk, making it nice and foamy. Once there’s enough foam, submerge the wand and let the milk swirl, incorporating the foam into the liquid.
For ideal latte art, 9 fluid ounces of cold milk should expand to about 10 fluid ounces once steamed. This ratio of milk and foam is ideal for having a thick, foamy pour. Once the milk breaks the crema, the foam can rest on top, allowing for latte art.
What Milk Makes The Best Latte Art
One thing beginners overlook when crafting latte art is the type of milk. You may be able to perfectly pour a heart with whole milk, but you’re lost on soy milk. Some baristas prefer half and half, while others love working with low fat milk. Understanding how each milk steams and pours will let you master latte art in no time.
To get the best art, you want a dense, rich, foamy milk. This texture largely comes from the fats in milk. A good rule of thumb is the more fat in the drink, the better the latte art. Whole milk is a barista’s favorite milk to pour art with, since it easily gets the right texture and will pour perfectly into the espresso.
Nonfat milk tends to be one of the toughest drinks to make art with. Since the fat has been removed, nonfat milk is mostly lactose and water. This causes the milk to have an excess really light foam that sits on top, rather than incorporating into the milk.
Many coffee drinkers love the flavor of espresso but don’t want dairy products. Alternatives like soy milk, almond milk, or coconut milk can be tricky to turn into latte art. Unlike with dairy milk, the fat content of the beverage doesn’t help with the latte art. Most of it comes down to the brand, and how the milk is made.
If the beverage is watery, it won’t turn into latte art. Likewise, if it’s too thick, it also won’t pour well. Experiment with different brands, and try different temperatures and steaming techniques. Each of these beverages will work differently, so it’s all about finding what works.
Half and half
Some people want their lattes breve, which means to use steamed half and half. This incredibly rich drink is pretty uncommon, but can be one of the tougher options when it comes to latte art. Even though it has a very high fat content, half-and-half is very difficult to steam. The liquid is so dense that typical steam wands can’t properly aerate it, resulting in a bubbly drink with inconsistent foam. It takes a highly skilled barista to properly make latte art with half and half.
Mastering Your Own Latte Art
Now that you’ve learned the basics, you can try your own. It takes practice, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t do it right away. Watch baristas at your local coffee shops, and even ask them for pointers if they aren’t preoccupied. And of course, don’t be afraid to keep trying.
Whether you’re a very avid coffee drinker interested in learning more about latte art, or a new barista trying to impress at your coffee shop, latte art is fun, and anyone can do it. The coffee drinking experience is already unique and enjoyable, and you can take it to the next level by trying to master latte art.