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Latte Art Troubleshooting

Five Senses CoffeeGuest Writer 2 May 2011

When it comes to latte art, there are always a few myths worth debunking right away. My personal favourites are the variations on the theme that steamed milk somehow magically changes the flavour of your espresso: either the espresso will surely taste amazing because the drink has latte art, or the espresso will fade completely into a milk-drenched abyss.

At the first few shops where I worked in Seattle and Boston, hardly any time at all was spent training me on espresso, but the owners were sure to show me how to pour latte art. It was only in 2006, when I tasted my first straight shots of espresso, that I understood how important that ingredient is to the drink. And when I look back on the latte art itself, it was never great. In order to prepare the very best looking latte art, a well-pulled espresso is a key component.

On the flip side, while many of us obsess over tasting our espressos every 15 minutes while on the clock, most of our consumers do not. However, they can absolutely tell the difference when their drink — whether it’s a macchiato or a non-fat mocha — tastes funny. It’s the barista’s job to ensure that everyone coming into a café enjoys any beverage on the menu, which means making a concerted effort with each drink to secure that it is the best it can be.

Frequently when I’m working bar shifts, I silently tell myself, ‘I am going to make the next customer the best cup of coffee they’ve had in their life.’ The customer’s job is simply to come back and repeat the process again and again, thereby paying for the whole relationship to continue. Milk is simply an additional ingredient that needs to be treated with care on its own, and combined with espresso in a way that is customer-forward.

The next latte art myth is that of the wiggle. Everyone always wants to wiggle his or her wrists, shaking a latte out into a wispy rosetta at the last second. In fact, training books, videos and discussions of latte art on the internet frequently refer to wiggling as the default latte art pour method.

I, too, once believed that latte art was all about a wiggle. Then, one day in 2007, I went to my first ever Specialty Coffee Association of America Skill Building Workshop, and was asked to demonstrate my prowess at latte art. If you can imagine the latte art disaster that followed… I was gently directed to try something different by my instructor, Aaron Ultimo, now of Ultimo Coffee in Philadelphia. By maintaining steady hand movements and focusing on the milk’s pace, proximity and positioning, he said, you — the barista — can control where and how the drinks pour from the pitcher and into the cup. The three Ps have now become a regular part of my trainings, and something I remember as one of my most instrumental moments learning about coffee.

Finally, let’s talk about extra hot lattes. If you are currently serving ‘extra hot’ drinks to your customers, please put down this article, head to your espresso machine, and steam up some milk to 180+ degrees F. Smell it, taste it and think about it. Compare it to your normal drink temperatures (which I don’t recommend heating much over 140 degrees F while steaming, 165 once rested. Many cafés steam their milk up to 20 degrees lower than that). Does it taste like something you want to serve to customers? Probably — hopefully — not. Ultimately, it’s up to whomever determines your café’s policy, but so far no student at TampCamp has left feeling particularly warm and fuzzy about tasting or smelling that milk again. Also, your latte art will never look as good when you are serving drinks at high temperatures, simply because the microfoam bubbles you’ve been trying to achieve will begin to break down on their own, forming much larger pockets of air.

Instead, I recommend pre-heating any ceramic or travel mugs like crazy, filling them with hot water two or three times, to raise the temperature the customer perceives is coming from the drink. Try it — it really works. For to-go drinks, we can all share a white lie: call that drink out extra hot when you’ve steamed it only as far as you’re willing to go. So far, despite serving thousands of drinks, I’ve had no more coffees come back than I can count on one hand. More often, customers come back to ask why the drink tasted so much better than it usually does. If the timing is right, and I think the customer is ready to learn, I’ll let them in on my secret. I’m always wary to ‘educate’ the customer that I’ve made the drink differently than they expected, especially if they are under-caffeinated!

Now that I’ve gotten those myths out of the way, we can move on to the task at hand: troubleshooting your latte art. So you’ve gotten a few good pours out, but things still aren’t perfect all the time. Why is that? We’ve taken some photographs to demonstrate common issues that happen while pouring, especially as you first learn latte art. If you’ve never poured latte art before, you may want to check out Bellissimo’s Extreme Pours DVD. The fundamental information from the video is really sound. Then come back and use this to troubleshoot as you pour!

1. This is probably the most common looking first-time pour design. One thing that’s really great about this pour is its definition, meaning how dark the crema is compared to how white the foam in the design looks. When the barista first poured the drink, he poured from a good distance (proximity), at a slow enough speed to cut into the crema without washing it out (pace), and directly into the center of the crema so no milk would break the surface tension (positioning). The flaw in this pour came right as the barista moved in to make the rosetta’s leaves. While he moved in nice, steady movements from side to side, the barista was too far from the surface of the liquid (by about one-third to one-half of an inch), which made the leaves look less symmetrical as some of the milk sank through the surface, while other parts floated nicely on top. For the next pour, if the barista moves in and almost touches the surface as he moves from side to side, the leaves will appear much more symmetrically.

2. What happens when a barista’s milk is over-aerated? This! Now you know. When steamed milk has a little too much air, designs will become washed out as the foam is hard to control and washes out the crema at the start of the pour. That’s why the definition for this heart isn’t as clear as the design in photo number one. As for the pour itself, the barista most likely followed the steps correctly, but simply needs to re-steam or edit his milk for better results (I’ll explain in the next paragraph), as the foam washed out the design when the pour began.

One way you can check how foamy milk will be is by spinning, or rotating it in the pitcher to see how much it sticks to the sides, and to see if there are visible bubbles in the foam. The more bubbles you can see, the less likely the milk will pour well or taste good. (Another good way to verify your milk’s quality is to taste it!) That milk will be very sticky to the inside of the pitcher, leaving a foamy residue as you spin. The best milk looks like wet paint, shiny and smooth on the surface, and sticks slightly. When you’ve over-aerated just a touch, sometimes it’s best to pour a tiny bit out before you start your latte art pour. Be careful to pour over the pitcher’s side or with a big, fast dip, because foam rises and settles to the surface of your pitcher after steaming. This process, along with firmly tapping your pitcher to remove any untoward bubbles, is called ‘grooming.’

3. Of course, over-aerated’s cousin is under-aerated milk. Here, the lines of the rosetta are wispy and thin because there wasn’t enough foam in the pitcher to create surface tension with the espresso. You can also see a gray- brown, marbled texture in the definition, due to the milk being so watery that it broke the crema at the start of the pour. So while over-steaming is clearly the enemy to great latte art, under-steaming really isn’t a friend either. How can it be fixed? One trick is to simply let your milk rest a bit longer than usual, which will allow for more foam to come to the surface of the pitcher. Re-steaming your milk is definitely not recommended, since it’s already at a peak temperature (and we’ve tasted that over-steamed milk, right?) As for the execution, many components are correct, as there are leaves forming. But there is also clearly a wiggling-wrist presence in the design. The leaves are uneven and not centred in the cup, showing a lack of wrist control. Also, the final pull through, which is best executed by lifting the pitcher far from the surface and pulling straight through the design, was too close and instead stirred the design back up.

4. This pour definitely shows some progress. First of all, the clean, glossy sheen indicates a really nice milk texture — the best yet. The definition is clearer, and the barista undoubtedly has taken control over the leaves in the rosetta. With time and a conscious effort to watch the flow of the pour from side to side, the leaves will become still more symmetrical. When I first concentrated on symmetry, I would be sure to line up my design with the seam of a paper cup or the handle of a ceramic mug (practice and then get comfortable pouring perpendicular to the handle for the best presentation). The number of leaves can be determined by the speed of the pour; I’ve seen beautiful rosettas with just 4 leaves. The trouble with this pour comes right at the very end when the barista ran out of milk!

A big blob of the last bit of foam poured onto the top of the rosetta, and seeing that, the barista then scrambled to get the pour-through done, but only got about half-way down the rosetta before running out of milk. As baristas become more aware of their pours, this becomes less of a problem because they begin to feel the weight of the pitcher and realize when they are about to run out, and start the pour movements a little earlier. Another way to redeem a pour when you run out of milk is to simply stop before the pour through, which will make a nice inter-folding of leaves that still is more appealing looking than a white-out.

5. This is another promising pour, but it has some more apparent flaws than the last. Clearly the crema was broken, probably by pouring onto the side of the cup instead of in the center of the espresso, and the barista spent a bit of time trying to make up for that, resulting in a much more tan background to work with. Still, the leaves came out nice and slowly, probably a bit towards the far side from the surface of the milk (but a big improvement from photo number one). The final moments of the lift up and pull through are where the design still needs a bit of work. To get a small heart at the top of the rosetta, the barista can simply rest for a second or so at the top of the rosetta, and then lift to complete the pull through. Second, the pull through must be from a good distance (three inches or more) to get that clean, sharp line. The pull through should be a pretty similar distance and speed as the first pours into the cup, with the only difference being a movement to the opposite side of the cup.

I hope these examples have helped you understand the whys of your latte art performance, not just the hows. Remember to keep your milk well-steamed, your pace-proximity-and-positioning in alignment, and your wrist still as you pull those leaves across. I hope to see the many of your design before-and afters, and welcome you to send me any more questions about your art. Good luck out there.

This article was written by Anne Nylander, photos by Elle Bernert, originally published in Volume 6, Issue 6 of Barista Magazine. This article was published by Five Senses with permission from Barista Magazine. If you would like a subscription to Barista Magazine, please visit the Barista Magazine website.

Anne Nylander, is Founder and President of TampTamp Inc. The Seattle native’s lifelong passion for coffee bloomed into a career in 2006 where she spends her time studying with trainers, green coffee buyers, coffee roasters, large and small retailers, and fellow professional baristas — all to discover the best possible ways to prepare and present specialty coffees. Some of the items on Anne’s incredibly impressive list of credentials include:

  • WBC Certified Sensory Judge
  • USBC Certified Judge
  • SCAA Credentialed Lead Instructor
  • Level 1 Certified Barista Guild of America Barista
  • Resources and Materials Manager, SCAA Professional Development Committee

To find out more about Anne, visit the TampTamp website.

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