I had no idea. Like most people, I enjoy a good cup of coffee. My personal preference being a latte, the Americanized version of a cappuccino, but with a more densely foamed steamed milk.
So when I was invited to represent CTbites as one of three judges at this past weeks Latte Art Throwdown at NEAT Westport, frankly I envisioned a couple local baristas serving up some prettily topped lattes. Hearts, Flowers, Tulips, etc.
Little did I know, but being a barista has taken on a new respect in the coffee world. Third Wave coffee, Single origin, specialty coffee, French Press, pour overs and simple are words that have crept into our vocabulary as true coffee aficionados seek out the best baristas in local independent coffee houses.
NEAT is one of the original boutique coffee houses in CT, opening its first location in Darien, and in the last year coming to Westport in the former Vigilante Fire House on Riverside Ave.
This past week, they hosted their first Latte Art Throwdown, a judged bracket style competition not for the faint of heart barista. I arrived early to get my bearings and to have a latte, of course. Kyle Bellinger, the Westport manager greeted me and explained the “rules”. Yes, there were very serious rules to make the competition fair and very entertaining. Sandra Wallamaki of NEAT had created two lists of requirements for each pair of competitors. First the judges would roll a dice, and on the list was a corresponding numbered requirement. The requirements included; pouring in the milk while blindfolded, pouring in milk while spinning in place, using your non-dominant hand, while standing on one leg in tree pose and using a special secret vessel (which turned out to be an ice scoop). None were designed to make the art creation easy and it wasn’t.
Sharing the judges podium with me were some real coffee experts. Gerry Nicholls, a coffee consultant known as The Educated Bean, and Ryan Taylor of The Coffee Pedaler in New Haven. We were judging on Creativity, Symmetry, Contrast and Beauty.
By 7 pm, over 24 baristas had paid $10 each and registered to compete. The winner getting the money, their name on a special trophy and most of all, the respect from their barista peers.
To start the Throwdown, we rolled the dice and watched as each pair followed the instructions and created their submissions. Some came out better than others, but clearly everyone was having fun. The blindfolded creations were among the most challenging. After the first bracket of 12 teams, we quickly advanced to 6 teams and then to 3 teams and finally to the last two. The last baristas standing were Jason Varga of Tusk & Cup in Ridgefield and Thalita Codognolla of NEAT Westport and Xavier Pervez of NEAT Darien.
The final test between Jason and Thalita required not only use of non-dominant hand, but also while spinning in place. Quite the challenge and the focus from both were impressive.
It was a close call, but in the end Jason’s design took home the honor as the trophy was awarded and Jason’s named was added to previous champions, Stephen Emmerick at J House, and Claire Sears-Tam at Lorca.
The next Latte Art Throwdown is scheduled at Shearwater Coffee Roasters Thursday May 5th. Check their Facebook page for more details.