Just a few years ago, ordering a latte meant you would be receiving a simple coffee-and-milk blend. Now, as baristas put their presentation skills to the test, it’s not uncommon to look into your cup and see an intricate pattern or an animal face smiling back at you.
Latte art originated in Seattle, when barista David Schomer started manipulating milk to make floating foam shapes at his cafe, Espresso Vivace. As his teachings spread around the globe, many baristas jumped on the trend and began pouring hearts in coffee cups. Simple yet effective, it became an instant Instagram favourite.
Nowadays, the art has become much more complex and the evolution of different methods has given baristas the opportunity to experiment with striking shapes and designs, from cartoon characters to intricate portraits of the Burj Khalifa.
Frederick Bejo, 29, from the Philippines, has recently returned from Gothenberg, Sweden where he represented the UAE at the World Latte Art Championship – the first time someone from the country has taken part in the competition.
He created four designs for the judges: two swans kissing, a falcon, a scorpion with a rose, and a tiny tulip in an espresso cup.
Bejo, who was crowned the champion at last year’s UAE Latte Art Championship, which is hosted each year at the International Coffee and Tea Festival, says that mastering latte art comes from trial and error.
“Some people will look at a barista making latte art and think: ‘Oh that’s easy’ – but they don’t know,” he says. “There’s a lot of difficulty involved, such as the foaming of the milk, the positioning of the jug, the proximity of the jug to the coffee surface – it’s not easy.”
The two methods Bejo uses are “free pour” and “etching”, each of which gives distinctive results. Using the free-pour example of his “dating swan” from the competition, he demonstrates his process. He starts by tilting the cup and moving the jug up and down, slowly pouring the milk in circular movements. When the cup is half full, the real challenge – to create a unique design from the foam – begins.
“If you move the jug up, only the milk will come through, and if you go down only the foam of the milk will flow. If you’re at the halfway point and you’re ready, you go down and start wiggling and wiggling the jug for your design,” he says.
Positioning is of the upmost importance, he adds: “The coffee must kiss the creamer. If it’s far from the creamer, nothing will happen.”
A few twists of the wrist later and the image is complete, almost appearing to materialise from the foam itself.
The second method is etching, which involves using special tools to carve out patterns – such as his scorpion competition entry – in the foam. This is a more time-consuming process but enables baristas to test their creativity and experiment with myriad designs.
His next mission is to begin using food colourings to make etched images even more striking. “I’ve always had an interest in going beyond the limits,” he says.
While Bejo didn’t win the world championship, placing a respectable 21st out of 36, his participation was a big step for the UAE in the global coffee scene. Latte art has become increasingly popular in the Emirates in recent years and as demand from consumers rises, Bejo explains, it is becoming a skill that is required of, rather than optional for, a barista.
While Bejo spent seven months teaching himself the skill, using online videos, baristas and coffee enthusiasts can now attend workshops to learn the skill through Specialty Batch Coffee, where he teaches, and at the International Centre for Culinary Arts Dubai (ICCA).
The latter runs week-long City and Guilds-accredited Barista Skills programmes that offer training in a range of fields, including history, processing and roasting, right through to latte art and customer service.
“Hot milk with coffee is OK – but nothing compared to the full, sweet, rich feeling of properly steamed and micro-foamed milk,” says ICCA CoffeePro Program trainer Emanuel Ciarravano. “Handled correctly, under scientific rigour, milk can be transformed and enhance a delicious coffee.
“Latte art demonstrates unique skills, shows you care and is a distinctive mark of the professionalism of the establishment and its baristas, similar to plating with food. It takes lots of practice, patience and consistency.”
Leading UAE baristas are receiving recognition in the country’s increasingly competitive coffee scene. Wilson Benolirao, 29, from the Philippines, was named one of the best up-and-coming coffee masters by Ciarravano and Bejo.
Latte art is a particular skill of his and he can be found practising it at Boon Coffee in Jumeirah Lakes Towers, where he free-pours beautiful heart and leaf designs, and etches images such as fish, dragons, Angry Birds videogame characters and even his manager Orit Abdurahman's face into milk foam.
“When you have a pretty coffee it puts a smile on your face,” Abdurahman says. “It’s so pretty you don’t want to drink it. You want to keep it.
“To Wilson, the whole package is important: good coffee, good milk and good appearance. It always gives him pleasure to see customers smile as he serves them their coffee. He believes they drink it with their eyes first.”
Other local stars of the industry include Mark Louie Eduardo, 33, and Mai Esson, 22, both from the Philippines, who work at Espresso Bar in Jumeirah; Marvin Soliven, 31, also from the Philippines, who is based at Café Rider in Al Quoz; and Benolirao’s colleague Danny Timilsina, 29, from Nepal. All are renowned within the industry for their striking foam carvings.
If you’re lactose intolerant, don’t worry. You can still enjoy beautiful latte art by requesting one of several milk alternatives, which are increasingly available at most cafes
With a sweeter taste than cow’s milk, rice milk is a good, low-fat alternative for those who enjoy their coffee with a little sugar. Made from a combination of boiled rice, brown rice syrup and rice starch, it contains no lactose or cholesterol – but it often includes sugar to make it taste more like cow’s milk.
Made from soya beans that have been soaked, ground and boiled, soya milk has a host of health benefits. A nutritious option for those avoiding cow’s milk, soya is high in fibre, protein, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Drinking it is thought to help to prevent osteoporosis and prostate cancer, promote weight loss and strengthen blood vessels.
With a distinctive beige colour and nutty flavour, almond milk is an acquired taste. Unlike many cow’s-milk alternatives, it is high in calcium without containing lactose and is rich in fibre, vitamins and minerals. Its recipe is simple – mix ground almonds with water, and occasionally a sweetener, and strain the mixture.
Processed in a similar way to cow’s milk, coconut milk is extracted from coconuts and squeezed through a cheesecloth multiple times until the desired consistency is reached. The resulting liquid is nutritious and rich in fibre, fatty acids and vitamins. While it is healthy, experts recommend it be consumed in moderation, so alternate coconut milk with other milk alternatives.
• This year’s UAE Latte Art Championship will be held from November 11-13 at the International Coffee & Tea Festival