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If you like your coffee with milk, you must have come across latte art. These are the fascinating two-dimensional (2D) drawings and three-dimensional (3D) sculptures made in the milk foam on the top of your latte, flat white, cappuccino, or hot chocolate.
You don’t need a fancy machine to create beautiful designs and art on your coffee, but you do need practice and patience.
To make latte art you need to make espresso coffee with a layer of crema. To make espresso you need an espresso machine. You also need to add silky milk and a layer of milk foam to your espresso.
Adding milk to espresso gives you three of the most common milk coffees – latte, flat white, or cappuccino. You can perform latte art on all three of these coffee drinks it doesn’t need to be just a latte.
You don’t usually make latte art with any other brewed coffee such as drip or pour-over coffee.
However, there is nothing stopping you from making your milk foam separately and using it to top your drip or pour-over coffee. It may not taste the same as latte art made with espresso but you can try it.
Espresso coffee is the way to go if you want to make nice milky, foamy, latte art!
Making Your Espresso
Making good espresso is your first step to making latte art.
Essentially, you need to use finely ground and good quality coffee beans, quality water, a 1:2 to a 1:3 brew ratio, and pour within 20 to 30 seconds. You should have a good-tasting espresso with crema as the base drink for your latte art. For more important details please see our post How to Make the Perfect Espresso on National Espresso Day
Making Silky Milk
Steaming and texturing milk to give ‘silky milk’ is an important step in creating latte art. It also takes patience to master.
Silky milk is milk that is steamed to add volume and texture. Why the word ‘silky’? I guess it is because correctly steamed milk gives the milk a texture ‘like’ silk?
Most modern coffee machines have a wand sticking out from the side of the machine that directs a flow of superhot steam into a stainless steel jug containing milk. You can push the milk around the jug (a pitcher) while heating it with the expressed steam. The steam also adds air to the milk and creates a microfoam that gives the milk texture.
Baristas usually use 3 milk jug sizes 350ml (12 oz), 600 ml (20 oz), and 1 L (30 oz). These jugs can make 1, 2, or 3 small coffees respectively with minimum waste and appropriate foam.
The jugs have spouts to allow the steamed milk and foam to run smoothly into the espresso. The spout also allows you to be a bit more precise when creating your latte art.
A large jug would have leftover milk and a small jug would not have enough volume to create the foam needed for latte art.
You should always start with fresh milk filled near to half of the jug. This will leave enough room to steam, expand, and texture the milk to foam needed for the drink and for the art.
Different drinks have varying amounts of foam. A cappuccino needs more foam than a latte and a latte needs more foam than a flat white.
You may like to use a thermometer inserted into the milk or have a temperature gauge integrated with the jug (see examples above) or stuck on the outside of a normal milk jug/pitcher. This will help you determine the correct temperature of your milk.
Steps to making steamed silky textured milk
- Fill your jug halfway with fresh milk
- Purge the steam wand to remove air and condensation
- Adjust the position of the milk jug and the steam wand. Place the steam wand in the jug spout and tilt the jug to the side so that the tip of the steam wand is submerged halfway between the middle and the jug side. Submerge only to the join between the tip and the body of the wand. Always hold the handle of the milk jug to protect yourself from the heat.
- Turn on the steam wand
- Place your free hand, not holding the handle, on the side of the jug to help determine temperature and to maneuver the jug during steaming.
- Lower the milk jug so that the steam wand can pull in air to create foam (aerate). Don’t pull into too much air or the foam will be too hard and will be difficult to create foam art. You should hear a steady hiss if you are aerating correctly. If you hear a screaming noise then the tip is too deep in the milk and you need to bring the tip closer to the surface by simply lowering the jug. You should see the milk spinning in the jug during steaming. The key to silky milk is to reach your froth level before the milk gets to 50°C (150°F). The amount of aeration determines how thick or thin your foam will be at the end of steaming your milk.
- Stop aerating once you have reached your desired froth level (i.e. froth for a latte, cappuccino, flat white, or 3D sculpture). To do this just submerge the steam tip to just below the milk surface and continue heating until you reach the desired temperature.
- When the jug is too hot to hold with your free hand then let go – don’t burn yourself. Your silky milk is almost finished when the jug is too hot to hold but you need to wait and continue heating until the temperature of the milk is about 65°C (150°F). However, it is OK if you like it a bit cooler or a bit hotter – it is up to you.
- Turn off the steam wand when your temperature is reached.
- Set down your milk jug
- Wipe the steam wand with a damp cloth to remove any milk.
- Purge the steam to clean out the wand.
- Tap the milk jug on the bench a couple of times to pop any bubbles
- Spin the milk to make it look shiny and silky. The milk and microform are nicely interwoven at this stage.
- Keep swirling the milk until you pour to ensure that it doesn’t separate out into a layer of foam
You are now almost ready to use your silky milk to create latte art! However, you first need to learn the basics of pouring your silky milk.
Basic Principles of Pouring Silky Milk
Pouring is an important technique to learn. If the pour is not done correctly then all previous work on making your steamed silky milk can be undone.
Pouring can be considered to be comprised of two stages (seen in the Coffee Ninja Barista Course).
Stage 1 is where you start with the steaming jug about 3 cm above the cup and with a tilt of about 45° (it doesn’t have to be precise but there should be a definite tilt to your jug). The cup may also be tilted with the lower end of the tilt towards the jug. Stage 1 delivers most of the milk to the cup to build a base and brings the crema to the surface.
Stage 2 is where you end with the jug opening almost perpendicular to the top of the cup. Stage 2 drops white foam on top of the base, and this is where latte art happens.
The aim is to have a contrast between the dark brown coffee base and the white top. You should gradually decrease the tilt of the cup as it fills so that the poured coffee doesn’t spill.
In each stage, you should poor at a steady rate. Poor too quickly and you lose control of your design. Poor too slowly the foam will clump together and the coffee will cool.
I have to stress, once again, that pouring is an art in itself. Be patient with yourself and practice. A good pouring technique is essential to good latte art.
Types of Latte Art
There are four main types of latte art from the really easy to more challenging.
- Free pouring
- Etching – with or without color
- 3D foam sculpture
Each type of latte art is described in more detail below. However, you can get a good idea of making latte art from the YouTube video below from Coffeefusion.
Stencil Latte Art
An easy way to make latte art is to use a stencil created by someone else!
You simply place your stencil over the top of the milky foam and sprinkle some flavored powder over the stencil. Remove the stencil and hey presto you have latte art!
You can use premade stencils or even make your own.
You also want to achieve a balance between adding extra flavor with your flavored powder and design clarity and the coffee taste. You don’t want to overwhelm your coffee with too much flavored powder.
The steps to make stencil latte art are…
- Use sufficient powder to make the design stand out but don’t use so much that it spoils the taste or aroma of the coffee
- Hold the stencil as close to the foam as possible but do not touch the foam. This ensures that the design is well-defined and clear.
- Place the flavored powder in a shaker container (like a big pepper pot)
- Gently TAP the flavored powder from about 15 cm (6 inches) above the stencil
You can use any flavored powder that you like for the stencil art. You can experiment with different flavors to see which compliments the coffee.
Flavored powders used for stencil latte art are many and include…
- chocolate (cocoa)
- cayenne, cocoa, and citrus peel
- burnt sugar and cocoa
- citrus peel and cocoa
- cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom
- sea salt, burnt sugar, and cocoa
Free Pouring Latte Art
Free pouring latte art is as its name suggests, latte art resulting from pouring silky milk (microfoam) from a steaming jug into the espresso. See above for details on how to make steamed and textured silky milk.
Silky milk and microfoam from the steaming jug are poured into the espresso and crema. The white foam separates from the liquid during the pour and this contrasts with the dark brown coffee and light brown crema.
Moving the steaming jug in particular directions during the pour creates a pattern on the surface of the coffee.
Free pouring requires practice and patience. It can be difficult, especially with more elaborate designs. It is normally used by professional baristas and is performed at the time of the brew.
A practiced professional barista takes only a minute to pour some beautiful and stunning latte designs. They don’t want to take too long to pour a design otherwise the coffee will cool. Consequently, a free pour design is done immediately after the espresso is pulled.
It is difficult to describe how to free-pour latte art, so watch the video below which will show you how to create a heart design.
The most common latte art designs are
- Teddy Bear
However, there are many more designs are possible that are only limited by imagination and skill.
For more detail on how to create free pour designs in latte art please see the Ninja Barista Course and the book Barista Secrets (see below).
There are also many YouTube videos on Latte art and a good video is below…
Etching Latte Art With or Without Color
You can make latte art by etching the milk foam with a pointed instrument. You can create simple geometric shapes or more complex drawings of animals and flowers.
You can buy etching instruments or you can use anything pointed such as the sharp end of a milk thermometer, a toothpick, or even a thin chopstick!
Etching takes more time so you don’t often see it performed in busy cafes because the barista is doing his/her best to serve customers who want their coffee!
Etching can be complemented by adding syrups such as chocolate or caramel. You can also use food coloring for extra creative flair.
Etching removes or moves the foam or syrup around and you don’t want to ‘contaminate’ one part of the etching from another part of the design. Consequently, you also need a cloth to clean the pointed instrument (whatever you decide to use) between each etch.
If you use syrups or food coloring you will need a squeeze bottle with a spout to allow you flexibility and precision when creating the design. You will also need to layer a bit more foam on the top of your coffee to support the foam and ensure that it doesn’t sink into the coffee.
There are YouTube videos that can show you the techniques for etching you can also read the book Barista Secrets. Some of the etched designs in Barista Secrets are shown below.
3D Foam Sculpture Latte Art
You can make latte art by sculpting 3D shapes into the coffee milk foam.
Some of the shapes can be quite amazing as you can see from the images below.
We have seen that the milk foam used for 2D art (free pouring and etching) is steamed silky milk.
To create 3D milk foam art we need to use a lot more foam that silky milk can’t provide, so we have to make the foam bulkier, ‘hard’, and lightweight. The milk foam can’t be dense like silky milk otherwise it would just sink into the coffee, it needs to be light enough to ‘float’ on top of your coffee. The milk foam needs to be ‘hard’ so that the sculpture remains intact and the parts of the sculpture don’t collapse on each other.
Unfortunately, a lighter milk foam also means that it will dissolve much faster than silky foam so you need to work quickly to create your sculpture.
You take a dollop of the milk foam with a spoon and place it on the top of the coffee.
Spoons can be used to arrange and mold the design. You can use a pointed instrument such as those used for etching to draw on the milk foam and the coffee.
You can use small amounts of silky foam, gently applied with a spoon, to coat the bulky foam so that the sculpture lasts longer and makes the foam easier for drawn designs.
You should first build up the sculpture and then draw any designs. If you draw the lines early in the sculpting process they will dissolve and smear.
Making Light Milk Foam for 3D sculpture
- Start making silky milk as described above.
- Aerate the milk a lot more than you would with silky milk. This will create a lot more foam.
- Stir the steamed milk and leave to stand. This allows the milk and foam to separate.
- The separated foam should be bulky, ‘hard’, and lightweight. Perfect for 3D latte art.
Here are some examples of 3D latte art from the book Barista Secrets. You can also watch a couple of YouTube videos on 3D latte art as shown below.
Is Latte Art Necessary?
Is latte art superficial? Do some baristas focus on the design rather than the taste of the coffee?
Latte art is not necessary and doesn’t necessarily affect the taste provided the art is performed relatively quickly. I doubt that many baristas would sacrifice taste for design.
However, latte art can create a good impression.
It is like a chef plating up their food. It may not be necessary to the taste but the presentation creates a good first impression that can create anticipation. The same with latte art!
Chemistry of Latte Art
Why is chemistry important to latte art? Chemistry determines the physical characteristics of espresso and milk that are necessary for latte art.
In particular, latte art requires an appropriate mix of special milk foam and crema so that your stencils, drawings, stencils, or 3D sculptures can be created on top of your latte, flat white, or cappuccino coffee.
The milk foam used for latte art is a mixture of two colloids – the crema and the microfoam.
A colloid is a mixture where microscopic insoluble particles of one substance are dispersed and suspended throughout another substance.
There are four main types of colloids…
Sol – a colloidal suspension that has solid particles distributed in a liquid
Emulsion – a colloidal suspension containing a combination of two liquids
Foam – this forms when gas particles get trapped in a liquid or a solid
Aerosol – forms when solid or liquid particles distribute throughout the air
The crema is an emulsion of two liquids – coffee oil and brewed coffee, air, and extraction gases. Milk microfoam is a colloid made from air, water, and fat. Milk is a colloid of liquid fat, protein, and water.
It is this colloid nature of milk that adds flavor and allows the foam to form when steamed.
Espresso coffee is a colloid suspension of various coffee insoluble compounds, soluble compounds, and water. The insoluble compounds include oil and solids. These colloids are responsible for the body taste and aroma of espresso coffee.
Drip or pour-over coffee isn’t a colloid but a solution. The filter used in drip and pour-over coffee stops insoluble solids and some oils from entering the coffee.
The crema and the milk microform are unstable and degrade quickly. Consequently, latte art lasts only a short time.
Milk contains proteins that act as a surfactant when milk is steamed. Milk foam is produced by the protein wrapping itself around an air bubble produced during steaming. The protein surfactant not only contributes to making the milk foam but also stabilizes it so that you can create latte art!
World Latte Art Competition
The World Latte Art Championships are usually held once a year. However, the competition has been on hold because of the COVID pandemic. A new completion is planned for June 2022 in Warsaw, Poland. Hopefully, the Russian invasion of Ukraine will not affect the schedule for this year’s latte art competition.
The world latte art competition tests the artistic abilities of baristas and really creative people with excellent skills take part in the competition.
The competition involves a series of rounds. The first round is a single latte pattern. In the second round the baristas have to free-pour two identical ‘normal’ lattes and two identical designed lattes. The baristas can use etching at this stage to create their designs.
The competition proceeds through quarter-finals, semi-finals, and finals. At each stage, the baristas create different designs for the designer latte requirement. They have to pour twice and create the design twice to ensure that the first design is not a ‘fluke’.
There is some prize money but not much considering the time, effort, and money that is needed to enter the competition not to mention the years of practice.
Previous prize money has been about $2500 for first place, $1500 for second place, and $1000 for third place.
Although the prize money is small the kudos from winning the competition and being known as the World Latte Art Champion is worth much more.
World Latte Art Judging Criteria
Essentially, baristas are judged based on creativity, identical designs in the pairs, the contrast in patterns, and the overall performance of making a latte.
The specific judging criteria are based on seven categories…
- Color Distribution
- Line Clarity
This is a demanding list of criteria so the person who makes it through all of the criteria of this list certainly deserves to be called the World Latte Art Champion.
The World Latte Art Competition Placings
The World Latte Art Competition placings for 2019 were
Champion: Manuela Fensore. Barlady Cafe Academy. Italy
2nd: Hao-Yuan Chen. No association with a cafe. Taiwan
3rd: Liu Guoqiang. Shanshierli Acadamy. China.
4th: Oneway Dash. Oneway. South Korea
5th: Hiroki Ito. Saruthahiko Coffee. Japan
6th: Peter Chan. Coco Espresso. Hong Kong
Let us hope we see some more great latte art in the 2022 World Latte Art Competition!
Thank you to Kate Kirby and Quarto Press for permission to use content from the book Barista Secrets. For Creative Coffe At Home by Ryan Soeder and Kohei Matsuno. The publishers are Firefly Books and Quarto Press. The copyright is owned by Quarto Press.
This is a great little book packed full of information and images of some great coffee art. The book also includes 5 stencils.
Quarto created Barista Secrets for Firefly Books in the US and their own inhouse imprint in the UK, where the book is called Love Coffee.
Barista Secrets: Creative Coffee at Home
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