Thanks to a kind Twitter follower, we were recently made aware of a latte art competition being thrown by one of our favorite shops, Bongo Java, in their new location downtown. We didn’t need convincing. We had heard of such events but never attended one, or really ever been aware of them happening until we saw them on Instagram and Twitter and were afflicted with fear-of-missing-out syndrome. We felt so exclusive walking in. I guess our invitations were lost in the mail? We understand.
Guys — it was better than we even imagined.
Pop music blared. Free swag from sponsors like Yazoo and Native Magazine, free Yazoo beer (try the Summer brew), and free apps and ‘zerts flowed. All housed in the shiny new Bongo 5th Ave, located within the also-brand-new Omni Hotel (it’s fancy, you guys). Laura felt severely corporate in her work clothes compared to the rest of the crowd who clearly did not have 9-to-5s (L: Elizabeth had had time to change. Traitor.)
We missed out on the free koozies because we felt like we should have had to pay for…well, SOMETHING, but luckily we ran into Laura’s friend Jess, who is not only a certified cool kid and knew what was up, but was also competing in the event. She explained everything (including the fact that everything was free). She also laughed at Elizabeth's chai joke, which Elizabeth appreciated, being perhaps the only non-coffee drinker in the room.
The whole thing could easily be the subject of a Christopher Guest movie. It's a niche world and we love (to pretend we're) being a part of it.
So each shop that is invited to the event gets two slots in the bracket. Basically like the Olympics, if the Olympics were also a church basketball tournament.
The shop selects two baristas to compete (if they are attending), and the hosts make up the bracket.
Each round is progressively harder than the last, due to the shrinking cup size. Less real estate to work with, you see.
ROUND 1: 12 oz. latte ROUND 2: 8 oz. latte ROUND 3: Cappuccino ROUND 4: Cortado FINAL ROUND: Best two out of three - 12 oz. latte, then a latte in a soup ladle (you read that right -- do not try this at home), then, if a tie breaker is necessary, a latte with a milk alternative (choice of soy or almond). Upon the announcement of the "milk alternative" round, you could hear gasps among the crowd. This is a serious sport.
Jess pouring a ladle latte like a boss
Two baristas faced off when it was their turn in the round, presented their creations to three judges sitting at the bar, and the judges evaluated them side by side. On the count of three, the judges each pointed at which they thought should win. Jess said they usually involve more technique evaluation when judging, but that at this competition they didn’t seem to take it into as much consideration.
We were a little miffed that we have not yet been asked to judge one of these things. The judges were a guy in a band (Moon Taxi), a magazine editor, and someone else we don't even remember. Listen, we are coffee shop bloggers. We have a very scientific latte art rating system(?) already in place. We judge things all the time. No one asks us to, but it would be nice if they did. (So if you know anyone in charge of picking latte art judges, put in a good word for us.)
The prizes were nothing to sneeze at, either. (Where does that phrase even come from?) They included copious amounts of gift card dollars to Bongo Java, tickets to a music festival and (the grand prize) a one-night stay at the Omni (plus all of the aforementioned prizes). Pretty sweet deal.
THE SETUP: We sat at a high-top table about midway back in the room. Luckily we chose tables near some large TVs, which would later prove to be optimum viewing position (besides, like, looking over the judges’ shoulders).
The TVs broadcast a live feed from the competition behind the bar, so we could see the art close up. An emcee announced each round and each barista as they stepped up to the plate. It was especially fun to hear which shop each barista was from. We tried to guess based on appearances but usually only got Barista Parlor right, because one of their baristas looked like a Spanish conquistador and the other could easily have passed as a Civil War Reenactor, with the right set of suspenders.
[Idea: Barista Trading Cards. You could collect them all! Trade for those you don't have. Stats on the back would be latte art grade, number of tattoos, inches of beard. Designers, photographers, business people, let's make this happen.]
THE TECHNIQUES: The baristas were basically allowed to do whatever they wanted to do, as far as art goes. Elizabeth was extremely disappointed there were no cats, pandas, or dragons. It was mostly hearts and leaves and heart and leaves variations. They were done well and it was all very pretty, but it would have been nice to see some variety.
We were fascinated watching the differing methods. Some baristas cupped the mugs in their palms, others held them on the side. Some poured out a little milk before starting, others shook the milk pre-steam. The crowd would "ooh" whenever a "move" was particularly difficult, but it was clear they all do this all day (all DAY). They were fast, and often the part that appeared to challenge them the most was getting the cup to the counter without spilling. (The people who emptied out a little milk before hand had this in mind.)
There was also a guy starting all the espresso and watching the baristas work. We guessed he was the referee, and just thought we should mention that here.
We wondered where all the lattes were going after they were poured -- seemed like a waste of perfectly good lattes. We noticed the woman who was taking them away brought them into a back room. Maybe they gave them to undercaffeinated youth or celebrities. We don't know. Later we noticed people walking right up and grabbing lattes after they were judged. If we had known this was acceptable behavior, we would have been on it much earlier.
Warby Parker count: too many for people who were not math majors. E counted 30, but she does not guarantee that number.
Level of uncomfortableness upon walking in: 7. This was largely because we were confused as to why everything was free and Laura was wearing a blazer.
Level of pretentiousness: 6.5. The mere premise is pretentious in and of itself, we suppose, but they were blaring Justin Timberlake, having dance parties and generally everyone was super chill, so we score it lower than you might think. Then again, Nashville is our frame of reference, so take from that what you will. It's all relative.
Entertainment level: 8000. If you ever have the chance to go to a latte art competition, and coffee even remotely interests you, do it. You will not be disappointed. (Probably. Coffee Shoppers does not assume responsibility for guaranteed enjoyment at any given latte art competition around the country.)
Newsboy hat count: 4
Thrifted baseball cap count: 7
Some sort of thrifted cap/newsboy hat hybrid: 1
Felt Floppy Hats: 2
Facial Hair: 80% of the men. (0% of the women)
Camo Shorts: 2 (we merely report this because we want you to know what's happening in the world of hipster fashion this summer.)
Cargo Pants: 1 [She doesn't even go here!]
Daddy and Daughter dancing to "Get Lucky": 1 pair. It was surprisingly adorable.
Level of Laura's disappointment when realizing lattes were up for the taking on the last round: 93402.
To say we enjoyed the latte art competition is a vast understatement. We want to go to all the ones they ever have and we want to be judges. Let us know if you know how to make that happen. Really.
By the way, congratulations to Jess for getting 2nd place! We were proud. ("We know her!!")
Have you ever been to a latte art competition? Have you ever competed? What's the best art you've done/seen?