Coffee craftwork: art in a cup

Coffee culture is having a moment and the rise of the talented barista, demonstrating covetable competencies in grinding, brewing and latte art, is giving the drink a whole new cachet

With much hissing and frothing, swirling and jolting, a championship in Dubai last month whipped up a storm of interest through creative expressions in a cup and saucer. It wasn’t the aroma of the coffee that drew crowds of fascinated onlookers to the stage at the International Coffee and Tea Festival but the visual splendour of a competitive platform for ‘latte art’. 

UAE barista Artist Nouman Kureshi rose to the fore with the required two identical samples of coffee craftwork and won the UAE Latte Art Championship with a fire-spitting dragon painted in milk and espresso. Coffee lovers from across the country got to see the secrets and the skills behind ‘latte art’ up close and discover that paint and a canvas are not the only tools for making a masterpiece.

A latte design can take a competent barista like Nouman weeks to perfect. The culinary art form is produced by precisely pouring steamed milk into a shot of espresso with a view to creating a pattern or design on the surface of the drink.

Steaming the milk to achieve an all-important ‘microfoam’, the barista-led trend was first popularised in America’s coffee capital Seattle in the 1980s. The initial motifs of the art form included hearts and tulips. Now, using only the freshest milk and the best quality coffee, skilled exponents of the craft are creating images of everything imaginable from unicorns to architectural icons.

“The best thing about being a barista is the interaction that I get to have with different people every day and the smiles that I am able to put on their faces,” says Nouman, who works as a barista at ICONS Coffee Couture in Dubai. “The happiness I bring to people through my coffee and latte art is the main driving force and inspiration.”

This sentiment is echoed in coffee drinking spots around the world. Baristry is a small but fast evolving industry closely tied to the growing global love affair with coffee. The profession instils a special kind of dedication in those who learn to work the espresso machine. “A job in specialty coffee gives you a sense of pride because everyone involved cares and the end result shows,” comments Estelle Bright, barista of fashionable coffee destination Caravan in London. “It takes years to gain the knowledge and understanding to be able to control all the variables and produce fantastic coffee every time.”

Consumers are fast becoming coffee connoisseurs too and developing a nose for more than just the distinction between Arabica and Robusta. This development in the speciality coffee culture is explained by champion barista Erin Sampson, former winner of the Australia Latte Art Championship and manager of the barista training school at Veneziano Coffee, a Melbourne coffee roaster. “I am now asked a lot of questions that I wouldn’t have heard even two years ago,” she says. “Where is my coffee from? What harvesting and processing methods were used? How old were the beans before they were roasted?”

With perfectly brewed made-to-order cappuccinos and lattes embellished with visual poetry, the daily grind is becoming pure pleasure.