What is Freepour Latte Art?

Below is an article I wrote in 2006 for customers at the cafe I worked in at the time.
Quite a while ago now... but hopefully it still goes some way towards answering this question!
 Freepour Latte Art – A mark of quality.
 What is it and how is it done?
     Freepour Latte Art is a technique used to create designs on speciality espresso-based drinks. It is practised by baristas worldwide, but lots of people have never seen it done before – even in so-called ’speciality’ coffee house chains. This scarcity of latte art is because unfortunately many coffee shops simply don’t make espresso drinks very skilfully – and without the right experience, attitude, and techniques, you won’t find freepour latte art designs being practised.
     An espresso-and-milk drink does not need to exhibit latte art to be perfectly made, but a drink displaying really well executed, intricate designs is almost certain to be of a very high quality – because it is impossible to achieve the very best free-pour patterns unless every aspect of the drink has been very well executed. The coffee writer Aaron de Lazzer of Vancouver has said: “Latte art is visually stunning, and indicates that the preparation of both the espresso and the foaming and texturing  of the milk are textbook perfect. The unspoken truth about quality latte art: is that the barista has a passion for exceptional coffee.”
      Hence – whilst many other factors such as bean variety, roast, espresso quality, and the ratio of espresso to milk can also affect quality and flavour, good free-pour latte art is not just decorative or cosmetic, but like a guarantee of overall quality and craftsmanship.
     An important point is that there are two distinct types of latte art: free-pour’ and ‘etching’. The free-pour style is the subject of this article, and is generally considered by purists to be the best, as it is more skillful, spontaneous, and difficult to master – and because it is the only type that actually confirms the quality of the drink. Etching (drawing) on the surface of the finished drink with tools and syrups is much easier, and whilst it can be legitimately combined with free-pour, many baristas feel it is too fussy – it is a purely cosmetic finish that can actually be drawn on the top of a very badly made coffee – and therefore not ‘true’ latte art. A third way of making patterns on drinks that might also be called latte art is ’stencilling’, where chocolate, etc, is simply shaken through a cut-out stencil to make a pattern. This is the lowest form of latte art, requiring no skill whatsoever. You tend to find this in less skill-rich cafes that just want to make the drinks ‘look pretty’. It is not in any way indicative of quality – a world away from free-pour!
     The free-pour style, on the other hand, creates patterns as the drink is poured and indicates quality as it can only be performed when all the elements of the drink are properly prepared. Personally, I only practice free-pour.
     With the free-pour technique patterns can vary from more basic circles, through apples and hearts surrounded by concentric rings to the most difficult flowers (tulips), wave pours, swans, or leafs (called Rosettas), with fine, crisply contrasting petals and stems.
     Milk, when perfectly steamed, becomes a delicious, silky, almost vanilla-sweet scented emulsion with a velvety mouthfeel, that varies in thickness depending on the type of drink it is prepared for – but it should always be what we call ‘microfoamed’ – with foam so smooth that virtually no bubbles are visible to the naked eye, creating a surface with a glossy ‘white chrome’ sheen. These features should also apply to the surface of the finished drink if well made – regardless of the presence of any latte art. 
     Without this sort of milk, you cannot create the best patterns.David Schomer (an espresso roasting and preparation specialist, and owner of Seattle’s Espresso Vivace) says this on milk texture: “The key to milk texturing is ultra-fine foam with tiny bubbles. Ultra-fine foam varies in density from very hard (with minimum air injected into the milk) for pouring the Rosetta Latte, to a soft density for the espresso conjurer’s greatest feat – cappuccino. Big bubble foam (we call it “sea foam”) is not only ugly to see, but the large air bubbles prevent coffee flavour from saturating your taste buds. It is simple, really: where there is an air bubble on your tongue, there is no espresso.”
      Even when thicker in texture – for cappuccino – milk should still be liquid enough to pour – and this is how latte art is created; milk is poured directly from the pitcher (without the aid of a spoon or spatula to control the milk) into the rich brown ‘crema’ of the espresso in the cup (or into chocolate sauce for hot chocolates), and by manipulating the angle, flow and height of the pour, and with certain precise motions of the hand, these beautiful patterns are formed by the time the cup is full. But it takes months (or rather, years) of practice, much concentration, and exact timing to perfect properly – and even the world’s top baristas can struggle to get consistently excellent patterns every time.
      So often though, milk is ruined in coffee bars; if not properly handled it can be scalded, burnt and cheesy, with watery, boiling milk underneath and dry big-bubble foam on top – a far cry from the moist, velvety substance needed to make perfect drinks and latte art. And this is just the milk! The preparation of the delicious espresso coffee that we combine with the milk is undoubtedly more fragile, complex, and hard to perfect – but I won’t touch on that at present, as there are many other articles on the subject.
      Free-pour latte art is, in conclusion, a stunning finish to perfectly crafted coffees that is not just superficial, and which can also help us to appreciate the very best coffee in the same way we would regard a good wine, or well presented, high quality food made by the best chefs, as this extract, again by David Schomer, illustrates: “A rare but treasured reaction to one of our baristas pouring a perfect heart on someone’s caffe latte is, “Oh look! It has a heart on top of it. Did you do that on purpose?” Yes, we do it on purpose. The intent is to promote respect for caffe espresso as a culinary art that emphasizes flavor, a silky feel, and stunning presentation possibilities… Although it is a finish, latte art comes directly out of the flavor of the espresso. Coffee flavor is enhanced by the micro-bubble texture that is essential to delineate the patterns in these pictures. As in many cuisines, the presentation is inseparable from substance.”

One Response to “What is Freepour Latte Art?”

  1. Art in a Cup « Cardiff Coffee Says:

    […] The Plan Café (one of our favourite hangouts we have covered in this blog) in Cardiff, says that freepour latte art is an “indication of skillfully made coffee and good quality.”  We love it because it […]

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