A North State Latte Art Tour
By Kayla Anderson
Canvas in a Cup
Story and Photos by Kayla Anderson
If you enjoy specialty coffees served in a house mug at a comfortable place to hang out for a while, then you may have noticed a heart, tulip or other design in the foam of your latte. The third wave of coffee culture is here and taking Northern California by storm. Here is a glimpse into three cafes dedicated to serving the perfect cup of joe that is also pretty to look at.
It’s A Grind, Chico
On a Thursday morning at 9am, It’s A Grind in Chico is bustling with waves of people looking to get their fix before going into the office. Baristas are at the espresso machine, whipping up drinks for people to enjoy as they go about their day.
The resident It’s A Grind artist, Beth Keech, creates a dark chocolate mocha. After she pours the milk, she uses a stick and poke method to design a peacock in the foam.
“I always do latte art if it’s a for-here drink,” says Keech. Since about 90 percent of the people who come in order blended or drinks in a to-go cup, it’s a rarity for Keech to get to practice her latte art. Although she says that she can’t create traditional hearts, rosettes or tulips, she is usually able to shape it into what she envisions when the blob of foam comes out. Some of her blobs have turned into unicorns, dragons, outer space landscapes, swans and fish.
“I can’t do special requests – that’s too much pressure. I don’t have a plan when I pour art. If you want a bicycle and I have a good base for it, then I’ll make you a bicycle,” she says. Latte art is a pretty hidden form of expression since the designs start to dissipate after a couple of minutes, but Keech’s Instagram-worthy latte art does spark a reaction and maybe even a conversation.
“People say, ‘Oh my God, I had no idea you could do this.’ They always appreciate it. See that guy over there?” she asks, pointing to a person sitting by the window. “He ordered a mocha. I’ve seen him come in regularly for the last six months, but today I gave it to him in a for-here cup and we started talking. He’s never talked to me before.”
It’s A Grind Owner Norma Fatchen fully supports and encourages her baristas doing latte art for that purpose.
“Coffee is a conduit to meet people,” Fatchen says. “It’s a craft, pulling the shot and measuring it out. All of our baristas are passionate and cognizant about it,” she adds.
The Stirring, Redding
Even on a hot summer day in the heart of the valley, The Stirring is full of people hanging out and enjoying specialty hot and cold coffee drinks. When a vanilla latte is ordered, barista Tristan Bredemann carefully pulls the espresso shots, free pouring a perfect rosette into the foam before serving it up.
“When I look at that,” says The Stirring Coffeehouse Manager Sharlene O’Reilly, pointing to the latte, “someone took time and effort to do that. We encourage our team to practice and try. There’s a lot of different ways to do art provided you have the right milk and micro-foam.”
“We don’t want to put coffee out there that’s not picture-worthy, although coffee itself is an art,” she adds.
Bredemann’s favorite latte art depends on the mood he is in. If he’s in a rush, he sticks with rosettes but sometimes he likes to venture out to create swans and phoenixes.
“I watched a lot of YouTube videos, which helps,” he says. “You can always be educated and the culture that coffee has created is astounding, it’s changed how people interact daily. My favorite part is seeing the look on people’s faces when they see a heart or something. Especially when you serve kids hot chocolates – it makes their day,” Bredemann adds.
“We serve a great cup of love, a beverage that can help one’s vulnerabilities drop. Good coffee makes all the difference in how your day goes,” says O’Reilly.
Heritage Roasting Company, Shasta Lake
Recently, Heritage Roasting Company (in conjunction with Espresso Parts) hosted a Thursday Night Throwdown latte art competition where local baristas joined together to see who could free pour the best latte art. Baristas paid a $5 fee to win the full pot and competed in a head-to-head bracketed format in a fight to the friendly finish.
“Espresso Parts is based in Seattle and launched TNT Northwest; this year they invited Northern California,” says Heritage Co-Director Sara Sutherland. “Heritage is really about community and the point of the TNT is to build that within the coffee culture. People have to know how to pour a heart (to compete in a TNT) and that takes a lot of time to build. It takes at least a week to get the concept down but probably months to years to get consistent at it.”
The first pours begin, and three local judges base their decisions on a criteria that includes contrast, symmetry and design in their latte art to determine who advances to the next round. In the next two hours as baristas pour hearts, tulips and rosettes, it’s pretty clear who the winner is. Amongst cheers and dancing, specialty coffee lovers leave with a newfound appreciation of latte art or a desire to take their own coffee drinks to the next level.