I consider myself a bit of a coffee snob. Coupling the facts that I have worked briefly as a barista and that I live in Seattle, the coffee capital of America, coffee has worked itself thoroughly into my bloodstream and way of life. Not a morning passes where I don’t grind and brew a pot of joe; my morning commute to the office always includes my trusty Thermos. When I order an espresso drink–usually a 16 oz. triple shot white mocha with no whip cream, but with a half inch of microfoam instead–I remember which baristas know how to properly texture and which baristas don’t and from whom I order an americano instead.
So when Cocoa watched Rize’s demonstration of latte art and succeeded in her first try, I wanted to cry foul! Call it pride if you will, but I doubt a girl who entered Rabbit Cafe for the rabbits alone instead of the coffee would know how to create her own designs when I wasted many a pitcher in my attempts on the art, despite knowing the theory. Even the simplest of designs, the heart, can be difficult to achieve, and the crux of the ability is in the steaming of the milk.
A good marker of correct texture is latte art–it’s not only there to look pretty! To create art in foam, a certain texture must be created. There are quite a few factors that affect latte art: the crema atop the espresso shot(s), the consistency of the milk poured into the espresso, the temperature of both, and the angle and movement of the pour.
The ideal foam for milk in drinks like lattes, wet cappuccinos, and latte art is microfoam, also known as “wet foam” or “velvet”. Since I do not like whip cream in my mochas, I usually request microfoam. The consistency is smoother with tight, almost invisible bubbles, and you can almost slice the foam with a spoon without affecting the rest of the surface. When you place your lips on it and drink, the liquid tastes slightly sweeter as it passes through the foam. Macrofoam, or “dry foam”, is frothy with very large, visible bubbles and is best for dry cappuccinos–which are essentially just the espresso shots with airy macrofoam on top. Straight macrofoam can also be difficult to create, and novice or uneducated baristas can easily end up on middle ground–note quite dry, not quite wet. The vast majority of espresso drinks I’ve had are usually like this, though after moving to Seattle, I have noticed a huge increase in my chances of getting a decent espresso.
The signature rosette is created through the pour alone; other more complicated-looking designs require a stirring stick to etch out fast-fading drawings. It’s quite common in anime-geared cafes to see latte or espresso art of anime characters’ faces:
Another often overlooked aspect of latte art is the container in which it is served. Many cafes use very wide-mouth, shallow cups made of ceramic, which gives them a large canvas to work on and not too deep of a container. But you do sometimes see art in paper cups–I’m always impressed by those despite also being sad to ruin them with the lid. As handy as it is to have your drink in a to-go cup whether or not you’re actually dining in just in case you have to run, there’s an undeniable pleasure in holding a smooth mug between your hands. I lean towards mugs that are much heavier and thicker than the typical teacup or even the standard coffee cup.
Interested in making your own foam, possibly even latte art? There are a wide variety of affordable ways to get your cappuccino or latte fix, complete with velvet and design. You can go the cheaper path with a milk frother, or shell out the change for a personal espresso machine with a steam wand. I also prefer the oval-shaped frothing pitchers used for pouring the milk. Or, like me, brave the wild and sit in at your local coffee joint and watch someone else’s magic. Who knows, you might even get lucky and end up with a server reminiscent of Rabbit Cafe’s expert staff 😉