Don’t read this if you want to enjoy that latte

(Updated 2021)

Ever order a latte at a local coffee shop and notice the foamy design adorning its top? That’s latte art, and baristas from all over Seattle meet up every now and then to see who does it best.

We went to one of those competitions at Zoka Coffee & Tea in Green Lake last week (check out our Instagram story that has all the drama).When the tournament started, all the competing baristas’ art looked the same to us: swirly, pretty, and…uh…foamy?

So, we were confused: What separates “meh” latte art from a pour worthy of a $1,000 first-place prize? The winning barista from that night, Alex Opinsky of Anchorhead Coffee, and Zoka CEO and founder Jeff Babcock (he judged the competition) gave us the scoop.

Judges at latte art competitions don’t taste the lattes. It’s all about the looks, and they’re looking for some pretty specific stuff. Get ready to become your next latte’s biggest critic:

  • Contrast: When baristas make a latte, they add foamy white milk to dark brown espresso in two stages. Alex told us the first pour mixes espresso and milk to create a base — the canvas for the art. The second pour adds the actual design. The base and the art should have a nice contrast in color, and Jeff said that comes down to how well the barista “orchestrates” that first mixing stage.
  • Texture: The mixing also determines how smooth the final cup of art is. What’s ideal? Jeff said it should be almost the texture of ice cream, nice and velvety. Watch out for big bubbles; those are bad news.
  • Balance: The finished design should be centered in the middle of the cup and symmetrical (though some strong designs, like the “swan,” are not)
  • Beauty: This one’s pretty simple. Jeff said judges look for “how gorgeous it is, overall.”
  • Difficulty: And speaking of beauty, what is your latte art actually going to look like? Certain designs are tougher to make, and Jeff said judges like that. But Alex told us that a super difficult pour isn’t necessarily the winner. In fact, she said she thinks a “rosetta” is harder to pull off than a “tulip,” but that “if you want to win,” you “go for the tulip.” And one barista commented that a “swan” design is tough, but it’s not symmetrical, so it doesn’t usually bring home the trophy. Confused yet?
  • Complexity: Jeff told us the number of “divisions and lines” within a design is especially important in the final rounds of judging at a competition. Add more “wings” to the base of your tulip, say, and judges are impressed.

The bottom line: Latte art contests are often head-to-head showdowns, and your design only wins if it’s better than the other barista’s. Will you go for the perfect tulip? Mix it up with a gorgeous swan? You can’t know what your opponent will pour. So ultimately, it’s always a gamble. 

Phew. Does that kind of ruin the simple beauty of latte art forever? Well, can’t say we didn’t warn you.

latte art in Seattle

👆 That’s Alex pouring some art earlier this summer (📸: Salena Garcia). Want to see Alex pour her competition-winning latte art in person? Go visit her at Anchorhead Coffee at Olive Way and Seventh Avenue. Jeff recommends the latte art at Zoka, of course. Seattle’s Espresso Vivace is known citywide for its latte art legacy. And if you’re looking for something a little different, Moore Coffee’s lattes are just adorable. Thanks to reader Luiz Humberto and Melchert Marques for telling us about the competition!