Coffee by Any Other Name

Seems like coffee is one of the few things that never goes out of style. More and more the plain ole’ cup a joe isn’t what it used to be.

Especially relevant are drinks like latte, cappuccino, and machiatos have become the choices of many coffee lovers. Specialty coffee shops have sprung up on every corner and baristas, servers trained in the methods and specialty techniques, create these delicious specialty drinks.

Few coffee drinkers fully appreciate the fact that frothed milk is what makes a cappuccino or latte sing. Without the milk and foam, it is just plain espresso. Like anything worth learning, it takes a bit of practice. Even the most capable baristas have a hard time at first. Let’s take a look at the frothing process.

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Some “ducky” latte art

Favorite Tools – Stainless Steel Frothing Pitcher

Just like all artists, baristas have their preferred tools. Most experts agree a stainless steel frothing pitcher is ideal. Secondly, you will need some cold milk and an espresso machine with a steaming wand. The stainless steel frothing pitcher is preferred for its easy maneuverability, but any non-plastic container will work as long as it will not melt or crack with heat.

The kind of milk you start with depends on the texture of foam you want to achieve. The higher the fat content, the more dense and more difficult to froth the milk will be. Skim milk produces light, airy foam and is probably the easiest for beginners to practice with.

Past that, there are as many differing ideas about the frothing process as there are blends of espresso.

Frothing the Milk

To determine how much milk is needed, only fill your cup with half the milk the drink requires. Because a cappuccino is half espresso and half steamed milk, so you would fill the cup one-fourth full with cold milk because steaming will cause the milk to roughly double in volume.

Pour the milk in the frothing pitcher.

It is important that the tip of the steam wand is consistently held just below the surface of the milk. If it is too held too deep, the milk with scorch or boil before it froths. Consequently if it is not deep enough, it will blow the milk out of the pitcher and make a mess.

Keep the palm of your free hand flush with the bottom of the pitcher. This will help you monitor the temperature of the milk without interrupting the process.

Slide the pitcher away from the machine as to keep the tip of the wand just under the surface as the milk expands.

At this point, if the milk is about the same temperature as the palm of your hand, plunge the wand deeper into the milk to warm it up. However, if the pitcher feels too hot, turn off the steam and tap the pitcher against the work surface. This lets large bubbles to escape and helps cool the milk.

Gourmet coffee with latte Art
Latte art is made by artfully pouring foamy milk into gourmet coffee. Talented baristas make beautiful and whimsical shapes

It is important to never let the milk boil.

Using a long-handled spoon to carefully hold the froth back, add the milk to the drink. Be careful to pour in one continuous stream. A spoon may be used to add the desired amount of froth on top. Consequently, if the frothing is done well you will have a fine micro foam that can be poured directly from the pitcher.

Latte Art

Latte art is a method of preparing coffee created by pouring steamed milk into a shot of espresso and resulting in a pattern or design on the surface of the latte. Simply “drawing” on the top layer of foam is the easiest way.

Latte art is particularly difficult to create consistently due to the demanding conditions required of both the espresso shot and milk. The experience of the barista and quality of the espresso machine are also factors. The pour itself, then, becomes the last challenge for the latte artist.

Equipment needed for Latte Art

Firstly, latte art requires producing espresso with crema and microfoam, and then combining these to make latte art.

Before the milk is added, the espresso shot must have a creamy brown surface, an emulsion known as crema. As the white foam from the milk rises to meet the red/brown surface of the shot, a contrast is created and the design emerges.

As the milk is poured, the foam separates from the liquid and rises to the top. If the milk and espresso shot are “just right,” and the pitcher is moved during the pour, the foam will rise to create a pattern on the surface. Alternatively, a pattern may be etched with a stick after the milk has been poured.

Some controversy exists within the coffee community as to whether or not there is excessive focus on latte art amongst baristas. The argument is that too much focus on the superficial appearance of a drink leads some to ignore more important issues, such as taste.

Latte Art Shapes

The two most common forms of poured latte art are a heart shape and the “rosetta” or “rosette”, also known as “fern” which resembles a type of flower or fern. Of these, hearts are simpler and more common in macchiatos, while rosettes are more complex.

For free pouring, the cup is either kept level or tilted in one direction. Secondly, as the milk is poured straight into the cup, the foam begins to surface on one side (due to the tilt). The barista then moves the pitcher from side to side as they level the cup or simply wiggle the spout back and forth.

A quick strike through the previously poured pattern finishes the design. This “strike” creates the stem portion of the flower design, and bends the poured zig-zag into a flower shape.

A more direct pour and less wiggling yields a heart shape, and minor variation yields an apple shape.

More complex patterns are possible, some requiring multiple pours. Some examples of advanced latte art techniques are that of the tulip, wave heart, swan, or even a scorpion.

Etching in Latte Art

Baristas generally create etched patterns ranging to such as crosshatching, images of animals, flowers, and simple geometric shapes with a coffee stirrer of some sort. First of all, etched latte art typically has a shorter lifespan than free poured latte art as the foam dissolves more quickly.

A crude but quick method with cappuccino is to pour chocolate powder through a stencil-like device. Consequently, many chain coffee shops do this because speed is required in order to serve the large numbers of clients during peak times.

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