A signature of the third wave coffee movement is latte art, espresso drinks finished with a design. You’ve absolutely witnessed this: lattes finished with ferns, hearts, or flowers freshly poured by your barista. It’s a testament to a well-pulled shot of espresso, milk with good micro foam, and a barista who knows what he/she is doing (and who has likely poured a few hundred lattes).
Latte art is a really fun addition and beautiful detail, and there’s really no way to fake it. To even have a shot at making one of those beautiful designs, you’ll need your shot of espresso to be fresh and have a nice layer of crema (that light, tawny foam-like layer floating atop a well-pulled shot of espresso). Additionally, you’ll need to have steamed your milk well. It helps a lot if the milk is fresh and cold before you begin steaming, and it’s considerably easier to pour latte art with full fat dairy milk (latte art is possible with non-dairy milks like soy or almond milk, and also with fat-free dairy milk, but it’s definitely trickier to pull off. If you’re a beginner, you should absolutely start with good old-fashioned whole milk.). Your milk needs to be fully micro foamed, and the timing is best if you pull the shot while you steam your milk.
There are actually two categories of latte art: free pour latte art and etching. Free pour is what you’ll see most of your third-wave baristas doing- as they pour the drinks, they also manipulate the foam to draw the design as it comes out of the pitcher and flows into the cup. Etching happens after a latte has already been poured: a barista will then use the existing foam to draw or stencil a design or picture on top of the latte- some baristas even sculpt three-dimensional art out of the foam! However, because of the time required to render art in the etching style, it’s likely that the drink will have already begun to cool, and the foam to have degraded a bit by the time the consumer gets their drink. For this reason, free pour latte art tends to be favored by coffee shops that place a high premium on the taste of their coffee bean.
To be able to free pour a design into a latte, you’ll need to use your freshly steamed milk and freshly pulled espresso just as soon as they’re done. One important step is the first bit of milk poured into espresso – it ought to be done from a height of at least six inches, and with enough force that the milk breaks the surface of the crema. This is a delicate balance – too soft, and the milk will just float atop the crema, ruining your canvas. But too hard, and you’ll break apart the crema too much for drawing.
After you’ve broken the surface, pour carefully until the foam begins to come out of the back of the pitcher- once this happens, you’re able to start making designs!
Next time you are at your favorite coffee shop check to see how your espresso drink is finished. A well-finished latte is a sign of quality, freshness and barista experience.