My friend (and barista extraordinaire) Z. M. clued me into something awesome: latte art competitions. Latte art happens when baristas pour steamed milk into your latte in such a way that it forms neat designs on top of your cup.


Competitors and spectators cram into the Cafe Dulce popup for the 2012 Thursday Night Throwdown finals in Downtown Los Angeles.

This is nothing new. I’ve seen it in friends’ Instagram photos for years. But it was fascinating to learn that it’s gotten to the point that people are competing in latte art. When she described them, I pictured an underground club (the location changes each time) where baristas from around town show up and slap their money down. They then compete head-to-head in front of a roaring crowd to see whose skills are supreme. At the end of the night, one winner takes all the money.

I went to the finals in Los Angeles, and that’s pretty much exactly what went down. I covered it for Take Two. You can listen to it here:

As with any of my stories, I’m disappointed by how much I had to leave out. Unmentioned observations:

1) The coffee-making community is tight-knit

At least it was among the people there. It seemed that everyone knew each other, even though they were coming in from all over the city. The top competitors were well-known, practically celebrities. There were plenty of welcome-back hugs and “you-have-to-meet-so-and-so” greetings. It was also a growing network. People representing the Barista Guild of America and specialty coffee organizations were there.

2) These people actually love their work

I think it’s fair to say that being a barista is a pretty unglamorous job. It’s food service – low-paying, hourly employment. And yet, here were people who had taken one very small part of their job and turned it into an artform. There’s something very appealing about people taking enormous pride in what they do.

I asked everyone I interviewed how they got into this, and time-after-time I heard stories about how they took these jobs without knowing or caring much about coffee. And then, something happened, and now they are experts who want to provide the best coffee experience a typical customer will ever have. What that something was is unclear. Was it the way they were managed? Was it just the power of coffee?

3) People love a contest 

And specialty tacos.


All photos were taken by Kevin R. Thompson. Don’t steal them. 

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