KUALA LUMPUR, June 27 — Honestly, I’m as guilty as many others of snapping a carefully-framed shot of my coffee for Instagram before drinking it. Hands up those of you who have done the same: be truthful now, there’s no shame in admitting you are addicted to latte art.
In fact, a cup of well-crafted latte art is akin to tasting the barista’s creativity with your eyes as well as your lips, feasting first on the vision before breaking the spell by your tentative first sip.
It’s easy enough to understand why latte art is such a craze among coffee drinkers; the question is, are baristas who fancy themselves milk-foam Picassos as enamoured of this trend?
The brotherhood of the travelling baristas
One of my favourite latte art memories is of Coffee Stain barista trainer Masa Aoki drawing Spongebob Squarepants on the surface of a cappuccino for a customer (and latte art fan). It was quite remarkable though the process was necessarily painstaking.
Aoki admits he prefers free-pouring latte art (where steamed milk is poured directly onto an espresso shot to form a pattern) versus etching (a tool such as a toothpick is used to scratch a design on the coffee’s surface).
He says: “Free-pouring feels more natural and immediate. Of course, etching takes a lot of skill too, but as it takes longer, the coffee may get cold.”
This is often put forth as a criticism of latte art fanaticism as baristas, especially new ones, place more emphasis on a beautifully-formed latte art over more the coffee’s taste and temperature.
Thirtysomething “travelling barista” Aoki is familiar with this problem as he has been globetrotting as a barista and coffee consultant for 10 years now. He has trained baristas in Malaysia since 2011 and recently served as a judge at this year’s Malaysia Barista Championship.
“It all started when I moved to Italy to play soccer. One of my best friends was an Italian barista and he would make me espresso at his café every day. Soon I fell in love with coffee.”
Aoki would later return to Japan and pursue his new passion by working with three-time Japan Barista Champion Chihiro Yokyoyama. “It was from him that I learned more about espresso and latte art,” he says.
“For instance, did you know that different latte art designs can also taste different? A heart design may require thicker milk foam than a leaf design, which has a silkier mouthfeel.”
With the help of a Korean barista judge, Aoki continued his education — she introduced him to World Barista Championship head judge and coffee trainer Justin Metcalf.
Aoki recounts his journey: “I worked at Metcalf’s café in Melbourne and learned about roasting. When I went back to Tokyo, I opened my own café called Bruno in Roppongi. And now I’m in Malaysia.”
Where latte art is concerned, Aoki has a Zen-like approach: “If customers order a designed cappuccino and the latte art makes them happy, then I’m happy too. It’s as simple as that.”
Chasing (latte art) dreams
Aoki’s compatriot and fellow travelling barista, Junichi Yamaguchi, was in town earlier this week to conduct a latte art workshop for enthusiasts at Coffee Stain, Solaris Dutamas.
The 33-year-old Kyoto native began as a self-taught barista and is now a much sought-after latte art trainer in the region, having taught classes in Hong Kong, Manila and now Kuala Lumpur.
He says: “I started practising latte art about four years ago but I wasn’t working in the coffee industry then. I was so impressed by pictures of latte art on the Internet that I bought a home espresso machine right away.”
Buoyed by his dream to become a professional barista, Yamaguchi moved to Tokyo and worked at The Theatre Coffee in Shibuya for two years. He then took the next step by competing in latte art competitions.
“My first competition was the Coffee Fest Latte Art World Championship in Seattle 2011. This year I placed second at the same competition in Chicago 2013.”
Yamaguchi believes everyone has their own personality and habits when pouring latte art. He says, “I don’t want to force my students to follow my style. Instead I spot their weak points and offer guidance to improve their own style.”
He adds: “Some might consider latte art silly and unnecessary. To me, latte art is simply another form of art so one may like or dislike it. For me, whether a customer asks for it or not, I must make a good latte art whenever they order a latte or cappuccino.”
Ultimately, Yamaguchi believes that as a latte art trainer he can connect people from all over: “There’s nothing like seeing their smiles in person as they discover more about latte art and themselves.”
Latte art goes 3D!
Perhaps the passion for latte art is not unlike a travel bug; once bitten by it, one could travel miles in search of more. One of Masa Aoki’s students, Ang Yee Siang, left his hometown of Penang to seek new challenges in the vibrant coffee scene of KL.
At only 19 years old, Ang now heads Coffee Stain’s Fahrenheit88 café and was the first runner-up at the recent Battle of Baristas Championship 2013. His latest obsession? 3D latte art.
This new phenomenon was started by 26-year-old Osaka-based barista Kazuki Yamamoto. His 3D cappuccinos have enthralled latte art fans worldwide as his creations “pop out” from the cup.
Closer to home, local baristas are not left out either. Deftly and with infinite patience, Ang moulds the steamed milk foam into an adorable little bear, destined to charm a legion of 3D latte art fans. Perfect for Instagramming!
He admits 3D latte art was difficult in the beginning “because this technique is still so new, I failed many times at first. But after a few tries, I found it easier and comparable to making normal latte art.”
Be it 3D or plain 2D, latte art will always charm this up-and-coming barista, and not only his customers. Ang says: “For me, latte art is amazing. By frothing milk, baristas go beyond creating a simple art but they can also make a difference to a coffee drinker’s appreciation of their cup. It’s about the look, aroma and taste.”
Smiling, he acknowledges the obvious: “It’s a lifestyle.”
Coffee Stain by Joseph @ Solaris Dutamas
D4-G3-01, Solaris Dutamas, 50480 Kuala Lumpur
Open daily 8am-10pm
Coffee Stain by Joseph @ Parkamaya, Fahrenheit88
Level 3, Fahrenheit88, Jalan Bukit Bintang, 55100 Kuala Lumpur
Open daily 10am-10pm