my take on the latte art question: latte art as milk diagnostics

I recently wrote a post about latte art for a beverage blog I regularly contribute to. It was meant to be a basic description of how latte art is poured, and a general introduction to what I just now decided I’m going to call the latte art question, which led me to other questions on the practicality of latte art – something I’ve been getting more and more excited about, particularly with regard to barista training.

The latte art question(s)

Like most questions with names that follow this formula (the woman question, the Homeric question), the latte art question is complex and actually constitutes many questions: Is latte art a good thing? How strong is the correlation between well executed latte art and delicious beverages? Is behind-the-back or blindfolded latte art a worthy endeavor?

I feel like most of us have reached a consensus on these questions. We can agree that specialty beverages are aesthetic objects; people like them because they taste pretty, smell pretty, feel pretty, and, yes, look pretty. People don’t often question why cocktails are presented attractively.

Latte art doesn’t make a beverage taste any better, but baristas who pour latte art tend to be more experienced than those who don’t. It isn’t always the case, but on average these baristas may know more and care more about beverage quality. (David Walsh sums this up nicely at the end of an entry that otherwise has nothing to do with latte art at all). And, of course, it’s generally agreed that behind-the-back latte art is awesome, and totally commendable.

But these more obvious questions led me to a more interesting one: does latte art have any value outside of its visual appeal? Or, phrased more provocatively, is latte art practical? I touched on this a little on the other blog, but a fuller exploration was a little outside the scope of that forum.

Latte art and barista training

From a barista trainer’s perspective, which is to say my perspective, latte art is awesome. Excellent latte art requires excellent milk; it must be properly textured, and heated to the proper temperature. In other words, ideal latte art milk is pretty much ideal latte milk. This is incredibly useful for training, especially since every new barista wants to pour awesome latte art.

I can walk into a training session and say “let’s do some latte art,” then work with a barista on milk steaming for an hour. The beauty of it is that (1) it doesn’t feel like work and (2) it gets baristas to use latte art as a tool for diagnosing problems with their milk. After even one session of “latte art training” with a focus on milk steaming, a barista can pick up the tools to drastically improve milk quality and consistency on their own in a very short period of time; and they’ll do it too, because they want to pour awesome latte art.

About barnwolf

head barista for pavement coffeehouse and erc boston
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