It was an intense two hours in East Bayside Thursday night. Baristas and latte slingers from across Greater Portland, Connecticut, New Hampshire and even Philly, steamed, pulled and whirred their way through a handful of latte designs for the Thursday Night Throwdown: Basically a latte slam. One emerged the winner: Brittany Feltovic, manager at Bard Coffee.
And what makes a latte champ?
Attention to detail, crispness of design, centered hearts, tulips and rosettas, and a myriad of nuances that most coffee drinkers don’t notice when they down their a.m. joe. But painting with milk and espresso is a learned skill.
As a judge at the throwdown held at Coffee By Design’s Portland headquarters, I learned that baristas get nervous working on new machines, their technique improves with wine, and the execution of a stunning latte is serious business for those in the trade. Also, not all late art is suitable for hashtagging.
Like a perfectly poured Guinness or cocktail, what does an eye-catching beverage that goes the extra mile say about the person behind the counter? They respect the drink, take pride in their work and are serving up more than a caffeine fix. “It comes down to training,” said Jesus Gomez, a Puerto Rican barista champ and head coffee clerk at J. Rene in West Hartford (worth a visit).
Gomez, a fellow judge, taught a master class earlier that day and has the pride and air of a sommelier (bow tie included). And why shouldn’t he? When coffee by the pound, or 12 ounces, is as well sourced and blended as a grand cru (fetching the same prices) it deserves to be put on a pedestal. Gone are the grunge days (circa 1992) when mud was served up by a surly or disaffected coffee shop worker who cared more about cranking Nirvana than splitting hairs over resolutions in your espresso drink. Back then you’d be lucky if the person pouring your brew knew anything about the bean other than the price per cup, small or large? Here or to go?
Now espresso drinks, riding the third wave, are as nice to view as to sip.
Feltovic, a leader on the Portland coffee scene, knows that she is only as good as her last latte. Each one had presence, thought and looked highly drinkable. If you are a Bard regular, you probably take this for granted, like those stunning cobblestones in the Old Port.
The Hartford baristas in the mix last night lamented that CT’s capitol doesn’t have enough of a coffee scene to throw one of these down. Portlanders are lucky that the mud here is as marvelous as the food scene. Perfect floating art, or not.
We have choices and artists, not just at MECA or the PMA, but behind the counter on the corner. And in emerging hubs like East Bayside, where Coffee By Design’s flagship emporium is a perfect stage for all caffeine capers.
Next throwdown is at Elements in Biddeford in February. See you there!