Latte Artists Compete in Barista Throwdowns Across Boston
Pouring a latte might take only a moment, but among the barista elite, it’s an exacting, obsessed-over science. That skill was on full display one night last November at Darwin’s Ltd. on Mass. Ave., where a standing-room-only, fist-pumping crowd cheered throughout a grueling head-to-head barista contest.
Known as a Throwdown, the secretive competition frequently changes locations and involves an NCAA-style tournament bracket. Each round is presided over by coffee experts who judge cuppas on visual appeal, creativity, and technical prowess; ultimately, one tiny-pitcher-wielding barista is proclaimed the winner. “Do you have nerves of steel, or do you get stage fright?” asks Gissell Lara-Arredondo, who has been running Darwin’s Throwdowns since she moved from Los Angeles in 2014. “When I started making coffee, it took me three or four months to even steam milk properly.”
Despite the oppressive humidity, there’s a tense, overcaffeinated buzz in the air. The judges hover near the sweating baristas, who grimace in concentration as they steam milk into microfoam and delicately pour it into espresso, rocking and twisting the stream into billowy patterns on the surface of each impeccably pulled shot. “I’ve seen a lot of performance anxiety,” says Dylan Evans, a roaster at Gracenote Coffee who has won three local Throwdowns and a number of national competitions. “The best baristas just power through it.”
Evans reaches the final round at Loyal Nine café’s Throwdown a few weeks later. He squares off with his opponent over an imposing La Marzocco espresso machine as spectators teeter on tabletops to watch him work. The two contestants etch foam tulips; the top of Evans’s drifts into a dreamy cloud, while his adversary’s is tightly wound.
“Whoa,” cries former La Brasa café manager Judson MacRae, who’s judging the evening’s action. “That’s hard!” He gets down on one knee, peers over the cups from eye level, and bites down on his fist. After careful consideration, he and the other judges point to the victor. Two out of the three vote for Evans, who takes home a Hario drip pot as a prize—not to mention the prestige of being named Cambridge Throwdown champ.
A BARISTA’S TOOLBOX
Loyal Nine café manager and Throwdown organizer Ryan Flanagan describes the techniques behind four typical latte patterns.
“The simplest design requires only a single strike, drawing the spout of the steaming pitcher backward through the center of the heart.”
“A barista undulates the pitcher back and forth while pouring. This creates a layered pattern resembling a fern; the more leaves poured, the more impressive the rosetta.”
“This requires several pours, stacking semi-circles atop one another before the final strike.”
“Any combination of the above. It can include rosettas with tulips or even tulips with mirror-image tulips on the same pour.”
Photographs by Christopher Garcia