Being lucky enough to live in or around the Los Angeles area gives one ample things to do on any given night of the week. Last week I took an afterwork adventure to Koreatown to experience a subculture new to me – the competitive world of latte art. Why? Well, I’ve been navigating LA without a car for the last 3 months (and until further notice), so when offered the opportunity to ride in a car for an outing I’m there.
IOTA Brew Cafe was buzzing with activity when we arrived. The amount of people showing up for a ‘coffee competition’ on a week night was surprising. How special was this event? How exciting could pouring steamed milk into an espresso shot contained in an 8oz. cup to create patterns be? Flanked by my barista roommates I was about to find out.
As the clock struck 7:30pm, the DJ lowered the volume of the fill music and the MC began to chat with the already sizable crowd. The audience then took this as their cue to surge forward towards the coffee bar and huddle en masse as the first challengers made themselves comfortable behind their espresso machines. My roommates and myself being of the shorter variety clamored as close to the front as possible to get a better look at the action. One thing I can guarantee you, if anyone even whispered the word ‘Starbucks’ they would have been immediately pitched outside.
Two baristas face off competing head to head in pouring a design-by-request. The rounds go as follows: hearts, tulips, rosettas. Whoever’s latte is chosen as the winner advances to the next round. Each round lasts between five to ten minutes as the baristas steam and pour their milk, awaiting the judges’ decision. The three judges, selected for their coffee-making prowess, look for aesthetic qualities such as the contrast of color, the consistency of color, crispness of design, proportion of design, cleanliness of pour, the ‘ripple’, and if the beverage meets the top rim of the cup. If the winning cup is questioned by the audience, the judges give the crowd the reasoning behind their choice.
Being entirely unfamiliar with this ‘sport’ and its festivities I was pleased to spot complimentary macaroons and beer while the crowd of baristas and on-lookers thickened. According to my roommates, these ‘throwdowns’ are taken very seriously because you represent the cafe and fellow staff members that you work with. Some competitors are so dedicated that they come prepared with their own steam cup, so as not to be thrown by using unfamiliar materials. But really, the best part of the entire night was being able to consume complimentary lattes since they don’t want to let them go to waste just in the name of competition.
These coffee enthusiasts have definitely found the best way to espresso themselves through the art of competition, and I must say I learned a latte from this unique experience and plan on attending more. Who wouldn’t love a night of watching people hone their craft while consuming a million free lattes? If you’re interested, the next TNT is September 12 at Republic of Pie. Visit lacoffeeclub.com for details. @GraceAhlizabeth