One of the most recognisable marks of a specialty coffee shop, or of good coffee in general, is latte art: those pretty patterns and designs that grace the top of your milky coffees. It might seem like an unimportant ornament, but it’s a complex skill that many baristas take very seriously, seeing it as a key part of their craft. There are a lot terms and ideas behind it, and we give a background to it all here.
Fundamentally, latte art is about pouring steamed milk into an espresso-based drink in such a way that it produces a pattern out of the contrasting milk and espresso. By controlling how the milk is poured, baristas can swap between blending the milk with the coffee, creating a rich, brown background, and laying the steamed milk on the coffee’s surface, creating a crisp, white foreground.
The physics of pouring milk yields a few pouring styles from which there are a few basic patterns which form the basis of all latte art.
Blobs and lines
Creating any white foreground element involves bringing the milk jug to the surface of the coffee as you pour. Having just the right momentum lets the milk rest atop the drink. Most basically, this creates a fairly unattractive blob shape. Lifting the jug up high at the very end of the pour and drawing it across the cup as the last dash of milk is poured turns this plain circle into a charming heart shape.
Stacks and tulips
With a little more control, these blobs can be “stacked”, adding consecutive circles beside the first with a pushing motion that spreads the design out to the rim of the cup and creates an interlocked pattern of concentric petal shapes. Drawing through this stack again creates what is known as a tulip.
Wiggles and rosettas
The other key technique in latte art is know as the wiggle. By gently shaking the jug side to side while pouring, the plain blob is transformed into a serpentine line that layers into itself, creating a textured shape that incorporates background and foreground. These frillier shapes can be made into hearts, or themselves stacked into a more intricate tulip by combing the techniques listed above.
The final basic pattern is considered the most technically difficult: the rosetta. Here, the wiggling technique is carefully controlled to first spread out a crescent at the base, before a squiggly line is sketched across the cup, and the entire design is drawn across as in the other designs. Timing, control, and finesse come together to create an elegant, well-proportioned and symmetrical design.
More advanced designs
Drawing on these basic skills, baristas have created a whole host of more complicated designs that combine some or all of the above with other tricks. Swans, for example add a heart off to the side of a rosetta, resembling the head of a swan, creating an asymmetrical design. Inversions involve turning the cup 180 degrees part-way through the pour, stacking into the base of the original pour to create a more complex shape. Some baristas also enjoy using a needle to physically draw dots and lines onto a free-poured base, creating more complex designs like faces and animals, though this is frowned upon by others as it is unhygienic and time-consuming, degrading the quality of the cup of coffee itself.
There are entire competitions dedicated to latte art, which begs the question of how best to judge a “good pour”. There are a few criteria by which you can rate the looks of your cappuccino.
All of the basic designs should be symmetrical. This means that the line drawn through the pattern at the end of the pour should evenly slice the design in half. Moreover, if the cup has a handle, it should be perpendicular to this line. Some more advanced designs like swans may be inherently asymmetrical, but here attention should still be given to a proportionate balance between the two sides.
The most fundamental skill is controlling when the milk is blended into the espresso below, and when it pops out onto the surface. A sharp and defined contrast between white foreground and brown background is therefore the mark of an accomplished latte artist. Fuzzy hearts and blurry tulips are generally marks of poor technique.
While we love drinking pretty coffees, at the end of the day the most important thing is that they’re tasty. Latte art shouldn't overtake the quality of the coffee, and a beautiful rosetta poured in foamy, over-heated milk is no good to anyone. Milk should be warm but not hot and have a silky smooth, marshmallow-like texture.
This just scratches the surface of the world of latte art. If you want to dive right into the milky depths of pouring gorgeous coffees, book yourself in for a latte art training session at our lab in Berlin.