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Latte art, pouring "textured" milk into espresso to create designs -- and in some cases full drawings -- is one of the branches of the barista's discipline. We've enjoyed our milky coffees topped with hearts, roses and leaf shapes for years, but a recent smiley bear face finally got all of Salon to wonder, How does that work?
"The point is to learn to control everything at the coffee bar -- the beans, the roast, the right grind, the water, the timing, the machine -- everything. So part of that means learning how milk behaves, and how to control it," says Ken Nye, owner of Ninth Street Espresso, and the man many credit with popularizing latte art in New York City.
And controlling the milk means, in short (because it can get very, very long), to 1) heat it up, which brings out its sugars, 2) "stretch" and infuse it with air, inflating it like whipped cream and 3) "roll" it to pop all the bubbles. If you get it right, you have a "microfoam" of thick, sweet, glossy milk that can hold its form when poured into espresso, allowing the barista to shape and stream it into lovely, graceful, whimsical designs. Well-textured milk tastes like magic, creamy but light. It has a visible sheen and makes a splat, like oil paint, when spilled. It's miles away from the stiff, dry foam that floats on top of many a chain-coffee cup.
"It's really not easy," Nye says. "It's a good first sign for your drink, because the barista's taken the care and effort to learn the skill." ("But," he's quick to add, "it's one point of a complex process. It doesn't really tell you anything about how properly made the coffee itself is, or how the drink is going to taste.")
A CONTEST FOR YOU, WITH PRIZES!
To celebrate this aspect (yes, it's just one point, but it's a fun point!) of the coffee arts, we'd love for you to show us the handiwork of your favorite coffee slingers. Snap some pictures of your favorite baristas' latte art skills and send them to us. We'll pick our favorite shots, and the top five entries will win fabulous prizes from Bodum, makers of super-sweet, design-y coffee gear.
Four winners will get a set of Canteen insulated glasses, made of wonderful-to-hold, super-light borosilicate glass. (No, I'm not shilling; I just date an architect whose geekiness about materials rubs off.) One super-extra winner will get the Canteen glasses and a classic Chambord French press. And, if you'd be so kind, please go and "Like" Bodum's Facebook page. Yes, I am shilling now, but they're kind enough to hand out some sweet prizes for our goofy little contest, so why not? Winners will be chosen purely based on the subjective whim of our staff judges!
HOW TO ENTER
Take a picture -- or several, or many -- of latte art, and email it to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include the name of the coffee shop, date, and time you took the picture, and, if you'd like, the name of the barista who created the art. (Don't you like to see people recognized for their work?) By sending us the photo, you grant us permission to publish it on Salon.
Photos must be 400 x 600 minimum size, 72 dpi, but bigger is better. Please put "Foaming at the mouth" as the subject line of the email. And please know that by sending these photos in, you're agreeing to give us permission to publish them on Salon.
All entries must be received by 1 p.m. EDT, Wednesday, April 6, 2011. Winners will be announced Monday, April 11.