Barista Justin Duren illustrates the intricacies of latte art.
“This coffee is too pretty to drink,” is a comment High Rise Bakery Manager Justin Duren hears on almost a daily basis.
“Usually my response is, ‘I’ll be disappointed if you don’t,’” he says. “I feel like even our to-go drinks deserve the aesthetic because it works for us as an indicator that the milk is done well, and it also gives us a chance to practice.”
There are two main types of latte art: etching, which is done by using tools to manipulate the foam into a drawing or sculpted shape; and free-pour, which is a pattern poured into the coffee by using steamed milk. Justin has worked with some etching from time to time, but it’s his free-pouring expertise that continuously impresses customers from behind the counter. And believe it or not, Justin wasn’t always a coffee aficionado.
“I’ve only liked coffee since maybe 2004. I went to Nicaragua, and it was amazing. My only reference for coffee before then was instant coffee or coffee from a church basement. So after having good coffee, I thought, surely we can find that and bring it here.”
From that year forward, Justin’s interests in the art of making coffee kept growing. He began by making some modifications to a cheap machine and practicing his art when making lattes for himself and his wife, Chris, at home.
“The milk texture is what matters for both the flavor and the texture of the drink,” Justin says. “When those are right, it makes latte art easier. If it’s not right, your milk is too thin, too bubbly, or too hot, the latte art doesn’t work.”
When the milk is steamed correctly, it should have a smooth, velvety texture. If too much air is injected, the protein structures that are formed start turning into bigger bubbles that won’t break down and thus not creating a good micro foam.
“Crema in the coffee also helps to make latte art possible, and crema is formed through the emulsification of oils in espresso, so the high-pressure environment pushes a lot of high temperature water through the dry coffee and then that extracts emulsified oils, which tend to form inside a foam. Carbon dioxide is captive inside the coffee beans, so when it extracts out, it then creates a foam on. top, which helps give some contrast. As far as the milk goes, the milk has three major components: these are sugars, which at the right temperature the milk’s sweetness is brought out; proteins, which make the bubble structures possible; and then fats, which help with the overall texture. As fats heat up, they turn into liquid oils, and that helps to create space between the bubbles.”
Watching the process, it may seem simple enough, but each step must come perfectly into play for latte art to work. Other factors like drinks with mocha or added sugars also help the designs last longer as it helps block the acids in the coffee from breaking down the foam, but customers can rarely wait too long before taking a sip.
While Justin is always looking to expand his designs, gaining much of his inspiration from social media platforms like Instagram, customers can often discover a swan, a tulip, or a heart adorned on top of their High Rise beverage, with special designs reserved for the holidays of course. And if you’re not much of a latte drinker, that’s OK! Latte art can be put on any drinks made with steamed milk, such as cappuccinos, cortados, and even a traditional macchiato. Whichever you choose, each drink is made to be perfectly balanced and as delicious as it is beautiful.
“I think latte art is like the garnish on a nice dish. If the rest of the drink is performed terribly, then the latte art doesn’t matter.”