Starry, Starry Latte

by Howell J. Malham Jr.


The customer was infuriated.

Almost everything about the latte was perfect:: The freshness of the roast. The temperature of the almond milk. The consistency of the froth.  

The problem was with the latte art. Rather, the conspicuous lack of artwork deftly embellished in foam atop the drink.

The barista could have argued that there was, indeed, some modern latte art in the vein of a Rothko or a de Kooning. But abstract expressionism doesn’t fly with latte drinkers these days. They demand something concrete and wholly representational:: a leaf, a heart.

Or Jon Snow avec beard.

"I'm sorry," the barista said. "We'll make you another with something special.”

“I like swans,” the customer said.

“I don’t know how to pour a swan,” the barista replied defensively. “But I can do an OK feather.”

Nobody is sure when it happened, but during the last few years, latte art went from being a nice to have to a need to have at coffee houses around the world.

Proprietors of those houses know what their discerning, over-caffeinated customers know:: it’s not just about how a latte tastes anymore; now, it's all about how a latte looks.

The reason is simple. Thanks to the diffusion — literally the spreading of what once was a creative act of deviance among a handful of talented baristas who could not resist the temptation to make a little bit of art with some steamed milk on the fly, consumers now have new and different social expectations about the latte:: how they’re made, how they look, what they’re for.

These are not merely espresso drinks cut with some type of milk that one slams every morning to jump start the day; they’re drinkable, tweetable, postable pieces of art. And a fine way to justify paying upward to six, seven, or even eight dollars for a cup of coffee, depending on the size and the up-charges for almond and oat milk.

“ Customers don’t seem to mind; not if they’re waiting for a piece of original art. A limited edition of one.”

Suffice it to say, pulling a shot, steaming some milk and pouring it into a cup isn’t enough; now a latte must be finished expertly with something pretty, something decorative, even if that means customers — who once expected to get coffee hot and fast at their neighborhood chain — must wait a bit longer for their drinks.

Customers don’t seem to mind; not if they’re waiting for a piece of original art. A limited edition of one.

There's no government agency breathing down the necks of coffee house owners, forcing baristas to comply with a new regulation on latte art; there's something much more powerful and exponentially more effective than another law on the books:: there's a new social norm among us.

It's “comply or else!” for baristas everywhere, and for the people who hire them.

Or, at least, run the risk of irking customers who now expect to have something extraordinary embossed in the heads of their lattes; a free-poured or etched one-of-a-kind rendering suitable for posting and tweeting. And, eventually, drinking, one supposes.

To keep the edge, and to make themselves more attractive in a competitive job market, many baristas are pursuing continuing education and enrolling in any number of latte art classes. Some are free of charge; others demand a hefty enrollment fee.

Unsurprisingly, there are now latte art competitions; latte art consultants; latte art specialists; latte art expos. There’s even a Latte Art Basel at Imperial Moto Café in Miami.

All these offers and market opportunities from a single act of deviance from an old norm; in this case, those erstwhile unwritten rules that once dictated how lattes were made and why we ordered them:: to drink, not to admire.

Deviance diffused equals social change.

The world has a new, fire-minted social innovation, too. Consumable art-to-go for the masses, as well as another way to keep those who want to make art all day gainfully employed.

In other words, starving artists need not starve anymore, so long as they don’t mind making coffee their canvas. ::