What is Coffee Art?

by Peter Taylor | Last Updated: 13 June 2020

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What is Coffee Art?

Art comes in many forms and is created with all sorts of different mediums. One more unique for is something called “coffee art,” and it’s popular amongst baristas in high-class coffee establishments.

So, what is coffee art? Coffee art (along with latte art) is a phrase used to describe the decorations found on lattes and other coffee drinks. This art is made using steamed milk and is usually on top of espresso drinks – though it can also adorn straight brewed coffee.

This art can take any number of forms – though there are some established techniques – and some classic designs. We’ll explain those in a bit, but first, it’s good to understand more about why this art even exists.

What is the Point of Latte Art?

This niche form of art is not only about looking nice, though that’s certainly the main purpose.

Coffee art (and latte art) represents a chance for baristas to express their creativity, and to demonstrate the care that goes into crafting a drink.

The truth is that a latte will taste the same no matter what art is added on top, but it’s nice to know that your barista is taking the time to make something special.

Unlike simply pouring half and half into a cup of drip coffee, there actually is something special that happens when a barista tops espresso with steamed milk. Because of the way that steamed milk holds together in such an interesting way (imagine the consistency of wet paint), a lot of interesting stuff can be done.

We’ll take a deep dive into how to actually produce this art yourself – but first, it’s just important to understand why this art was even developed in the first place.

The word Latte refers to milk, and so – it’s no surprise – that this drink is mostly milk.

When baristas hold a pitcher of steamed milk, they’re able to pour less frothy milk directly into the center of the cup and let it mix with the espresso. This is what’s referred to as “creating the base.”

What is Coffee Art?

In this stage, the milk mixing with coffee looks fairly similar to what you may be familiar with when it comes to just mixing milk and coffee normally.

The next step, however, is to pour foam out of the top of the pitcher. It’s this foamy milk which creates the art – but it’s also this frothy milk which makes a latte truly special. This layer on the top is what defines a latte – and it’s also the reason coffee art exists.

How to Make Coffee Art at Home

While this art has been perfected by the busy baristas of second-wave coffee shops, there’s no reason to not bring it into your own home. If you can steam milk, you can also make coffee art.

Before you begin, be sure to get yourself set up with your favorite mug and some shots of fresh espresso. You can use drip coffee as well, but it will be substantially harder to produce a distinct design.

Also, you’ll need to steam some milk. Check out this helpful video if you’re unfamiliar with this technique. If you don’t have this type of equipment at home, you can also froth your milk.

Getting Ready

  1. Transfer two shots of fresh espresso into your mug. As you get more comfortable, you’ll be able to pull shots while also steaming milk – but this guide is going to break things down into two processes.
  2. Steam your milk to fairly standard consistency. You should have a decent amount of even foam in your pitcher – it helps to give your milk a thorough and proper roll.
  3. Hold your mug in your non-dominant hand.
  4. Let the mug rest in your hand with your pinky looped through the handle and your index finger pointing away from your body – this position will likely feel a bit awkward and contorted, but it will help you to move your hand appropriately later on.
  5. Grab your pitcher in your dominant hand and give your milk a quick swirl to check on it. Milk begins to thicken very quickly after having been steamed, and so – in a perfect world – it’s best to move quickly and limit the time that your milk sits.
  6. Lift the pitcher just above your counter and drop it back down in order to break up any larger bubbles on the surface. It’s quite important that your milk be as smooth and consistently silky as possible.

The Base Pour

  1. Begin by holding your pitcher about six inches above your mug and pour slowly yet confidently directly into the middle of your coffee.
  2. This should allow the milk to fall straight through and mix with the coffee to create a homogenous base. It’s important to pour as naturally as possible – the foamier milk will naturally slide to the back of the pitcher (which is good).
  3. Fill your mug so that there are about two-thirds of an inch before the rim and then stop pouring.
  4. Now it’s time to adjust and to pour the foam – this is when the art happens.

The Art Pour

  1. Tilt the mug so that your espresso moves as close to the lip as possible – this should involve rotating your forearm towards the inside of your body. Bring your thumb up and your pinky down towards the floor.
  2. Place the tip of your milk pitcher just above the lip of your cup and pour more cautiously.
  3. The goal during this stage is to place foam directly on top of your base – and not have it sink into the coffee.
  4. Tilt your pitcher hand, so more foam from the back of the pitcher comes forward. Think of this almost as kicking up the back of the pitcher.
  5. Pour a dollop of foam into your coffee – begin by pouring near the rim, but watch as the foam moves towards the center. Then pause.
  6. Repeat this step and add another dollop – again, starting your pour by the rim. This foam should also move to the center, but notice how they remain separated by a thin line of coffee.
  7. Next, add one more dollop of foam – but this time, lift the pitcher high out of the cup and pour a thin line of milk straight down into the base.
  8. This will help you to finish the pour in a clean way. Also, as you draw your high pour back towards the middle of the cup, you’ll be creating a nice little point, and drawing your foam into shape.

This is a quick guide to making basic art. After having gotten the hang of this basic art, you’ll be able to experiment and make many more interesting designs. This dollop-and-high-pour routine is the bedrock of all kinds of different designs. Once you’ve got this down, you’ll be able to create some truly impressive designs.

Latte Art Names

This handy chart breaks down some of the most basic types of art.

Latte Art Names

The heart is made by using the dollop, pull-through technique.

The tulip goes a couple of steps farther.

And the Rosetta is built out of the same actions as the heart, just repeated many more times.

What About Alternative Types of Milk?

Don’t worry – latte art is not limited to simply traditional cows’ milk! In fact, you can use any type of milk alternative, but the results likely will not be quite as crisp as dairy.

When using soy milk, it’s essential that you avoid overheating the milk. In general, dairy milk should reach a temperature that makes it almost painful to touch. Soy milk, on the other hand, will begin to curdle at this temperature – so for this reason, be sure to limit the temperature.

Similarly, when using almond milk, it’s important not to add too much air. This process, known as the stretch, can produce much larger bubbles in the almond milk than in typical milk. This can be difficult to deal with.

No matter what type of milk alternative you’re using, it’s generally smart to treat your milk as just being much more delicate than dairy. Stretch for less time, give your milk a healthy roll to mix it all up, and don’t let it get too hot.

Final thoughts

At its most basic, coffee art is just steamed milk poured over coffee. But adding it can make a truly special little touch to an otherwise normal latte. It’s worth spending some time practicing, getting the hang of the basics, and then being able to wow your friends and customers. Enjoy!


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