The Latte Artist

Jessica Bertin
Jessica Bertin, the administrator of Joe Ed classes, subsists on just one or two cups of coffee a day – a shot of espresso here, a sip of cappuccino there, to test quality control.

“Skim milk. The bane of our existence.”

Jessica Bertin sits in the corner of the Joe Coffee store she manages on New York City’s Upper East Side, eyeing the Sunday morning crowd as the sun streams in. Every large latte with skim order makes the baristas cringe — the thinness of nonfat milk makes it nearly impossible to create the store’s crisp signature Rosetta design.

Joe Coffee, a family-owned business that opened in 2003, has several branches across New York City and Philadelphia. Bertin trains baristas and runs Joe’s public education program, which includes a smattering of about a dozen classes — ones focused on espresso and manual brewing ($60 for two hours) to lectures on direct trade versus fair trade. Then there are the full-day barista workshops ($225 for seven hours) and 16-hour one-week courses, which never fail to sell out. But one of Bertin’s most impressive areas of expertise is  latte art — which, for the record, is much harder than it looks.

Age: 31
Graduated from: Wellesley College; majored in international relations
Based in: New York, N.Y.
Years in the business: I’ve been working with Joe for 6 years.
Previous jobs: I was planning on being a lawyer or a judge. Then, after graduation, I moved to New York City and started working at Starbucks for health benefits. It dawned on me that you don’t have to wear a suit every day to have a meaningful, fulfilling job. That was a bit of an adjustment coming from Hillary Clinton’s alma mater. So I became serious about coffee and service. I also managed a coffee shop in Tribeca before starting at Joe. 

Who is the average person signing up for a two-hour latte art class? It’s a range of people, from those looking to own their own coffee shops to home baristas to people who want something fun to do on a Saturday. The ages range from college students to people in their 70s.

Okay, so a cool Brooklyn hipster walks into your class, ready to up his latte game. What’s the first step? Well, latte art has a prerequisite of milk steaming, where you learn how to properly aerate and texture the milk and prepare it for art. So given that, you’d walk in and start with an opening activity, like judging different examples of latte art. Then would come a lecture on the physics and science of how latte art works – the different properties of coffee and milk that allow this creation. Finally comes the hands-on portion. We break up into small groups of three students to one instructor and students practice pouring designs. There’s a pop quiz at the end.

How do you judge the best latte art? The difference between light and dark colors; the definition and how crisp the edges of a design are.

What special equipment is required? A pitcher with a pointed spout, which gives you a thin stream, allowing for ripples. The way the pitcher is shaped – and the way you manage the angle of it – controls how it pours.

The key is: Whole milk is easier to work with. The foam is a little more flexible; nonfat milk foam is stiffer and less malleable. Starting with very cold milk in a cold pitcher also helps give the milk more time to aerate properly. And you need a whirlpool happening in the pitcher; that vortex motion evenly distributes the air, giving you a smooth, tight foam.

What most people are doing wrong: Not relaxing. The smallest change in handling the pitcher affects the dynamics inside it, so just chill out and be Zen when you’re pouring.

Above, Sean Chin, a barista at Joe Coffee, aims for the very lowest point of the cup.

Your training: A mix of courses and research I did myself, like reading, watching YouTube videos and taking workshops. I underwent training for this job, but we didn’t have the understanding of the science behind it that I now have.

Now I’m ready for a science lesson. The special thing about brewing espresso is that it involves pressure, which extracts oils and gives it the sheen – that thick surface you see on top. It starts with viscosity. Once the espresso is brewed, it separates into two densities and textures. At the bottom is the liquidy part, and on top is the crema – the fatty, gassy substance.

Something similar happens with the milk: We add air to create microfoam. As the milk heats up, the proteins start to break down and expose a hydrophobic tip surrounded by water. It needs to bond with something to stabilize, so it starts to bond with air, forming a bubble matrix – the microfoam.

So now we have these two parallel substances, and we combine the two so that the more liquidy parts underneath blend together and the thicker parts on top fold into each other – they don’t blend because they’re so thick. It’s like pouring two really thick paints into each other; they just butt up against each other.

The most common designs you’ll see atop a latte: The Rosetta and the heart are the most traditional. The heart is more often poured in cappuccinos, since that milk is thicker and fluffier, and hearts are easier to make with thick milk. The Rosetta goes in lattes, since the texture of that milk is going to be thinner. Those two basic motions can be combined to make other designs. 

Latte heart
Instagram your hearts out.

Your favorite intricate design: A heart-topped Rosetta or a tulip. Dragons and swans are cool, but we don’t serve them because of efficiency. There’s not a big margin of error – it either looks like a swan or it looks like a mess, and I’m not going to make a customer wait around to fix his swan. When we’re busy, everything looks pretty – and when we’re really slow, everything looks super pretty. I wish that weren’t true, but it is. (Laughs.)

Do you consider yourself a coffee snob? I’ll still drink diner coffee in Jersey with my mom, but if I go somewhere with a reputation like [Joe’s], I expect something decent. I’m disappointed if I order a cappuccino and it has no art; my assumption is the barista isn’t trying very hard.

But the art, by nature, is rather ephemeral. I see it as the icing on the cake. If you’re at a gourmet restaurant, you expect your plate to be beautiful. On one hand, it is the least valuable; it doesn’t change the flavor of the coffee. But it’s the finish – it’s our way of honoring and celebrating the coffee. That’s the purpose of latte art: a signal that this coffee is something special.

The best part of your job: The ability to help other people enjoy coffee, whether it’s teaching someone how to make his coffee more beautiful or how to make it taste better. Coffee is a daily activity – and if you’re going to do something every day, you might as well make it amazing.

I also love the Thursday Night Throwdowns, which are sort of barista parties in the coffee community around the world. Baristas get together and drink beer – you donate $5 at the door, usually for a good cause – and then pair off for latte art competitions. One volunteer is pulling shots, and two steam the milk and pour designs – you can even win some money. Lots of people come to watch.

The most challenging part of your job: Creating lesson plans that balance student involvement and time management. That’s the fulfilling challenging part. The least enjoyable challenging part is answering emails and filling out spreadsheets.

Do your classes sell out? Yes, and I’m always surprised at that. I post a four-month schedule, and two months in, we’re sold out. I often need to request to add another cupping class or something during the month because so many people are emailing me.

We have one level of classes for the public and also offer private lessons with a one-on-one coach, which are more tailored to what you want to do. It’s $100 per hour for up to four people to attend; we’ll teach you whatever we know. At this very moment, there’s a private milk lesson going on.

Find a coffee shop you want to work for, and work for them. Several other places besides Joe have training spaces, like Counter Culture Coffee. There’s also the Barista Guild of America and the Specialty Coffee Association of America.

You can sign up for Joe Ed classes here. All photos courtesy of Jewel Martin.

For more No Joe Schmos who explore the science behind what you’re eating and drinking, meet the master beer brewer and the food chemist.

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