Latte Art Breeds Community through Monthly Contests

click to enlarge Latte Art Breeds Community through Monthly Contests
Ismael Rodriguez

To say that San Antonio is caffeinated is a bit of an understatement. Since last year’s coffee issue in August, our fair metropolis has seen more roasters and more coffee shops pop up in droves. That means more baristas practicing their tulip-making skills. And what better way to nail latte art than with a monthly competition hosted by one of their own?

Last October, Merit Roasting Co. hosted the first Thursday Night Throwdown (TNT) where upwards of 250 souls filled the small roasting space. Coffee enthusiasts, local baristas, shop owners, and competitors out of Austin and Houston milled about the shop, watching baristas try their luck at creating perfect hearts, tulips and rosettas and going head-to-head in a sudden death-style bracket. 

Lauren Deal, assistant manager for Local Coffee at Pearl who also heads donations and community outreach for the company, knew there was a need for the TNTs. She consulted Lorenzo Perkins, co-owner of Austin’s Fleet Coffee Co. who has organized the city’s TNT for the past seven years. 

“This is a not a new thing by any means, but he said it was hard for him to get it off the ground, so his previous company hosted the throwdowns for almost a year straight,” Deal said. 

That hasn’t been the case in SA where coffee shops often jump at the chance to host the competitions each month. This August, teensy boutique roasters Estate Coffee Co. hosted 60 people for their TNT with food for purchase by Pinch Crawfish.

“For someone like me who didn’t come from coffee, I got to meet several people,” Ben Annotti, partner with Estate, said over the phone, “It makes it so that we’re working together versus competing with each other.”

Rosella Coffee Co. manager Selina Gonzales, who will host November’s throwdown, echoed the sentiments.

“Is it bad to say I think the TNTs are so cute? It’s just friendly competition and a way to network with people from Austin and Houston,” Gonzales said.

Deal sets up the location and gives the reins over to the shop. To date, TNTs have taken place at Rosella, Halcyon, Press, two Locals, Fairview, Theory Coffee, Paramour, 5 Points Local, Estate and Bakery Lorraine. 

“I have a 45-minute meeting with the shop’s representative a month before the throwdown. At that meeting I give them rules, FAQ, common mistakes, roles for staff and ideas for sponsors,” she said. 

The trio of judges is often made up of shop regulars, coffee enthusiasts or professionals and the previous month’s winner. The trophy, designed by Grace Barbettini, is a steampunk-esque statue complete with metal milk pitcher perched atop. First place usually includes the buy-in pot ($5 per barista). 

And yes, this is still a competition. 

“It’s just like any craft,” Deal said. “You draw hundreds of lattes and see so much success at work and then you have one chance to get it right, where you might shake at the wrong time or have bad light. You have to calm your nerves.”

Anything can happen behind a bar filled with unfamiliar equipment. Marco Cardel, September’s champ and owner of Mila Coffee, competed in six TNTs before being crowned victor.

“It’s like driving a new car,” Cardel said while pointing at his custom La Marzocco espresso machine, “I drive this thing every day.”

There are plenty of YouTube tutorials that teach baristas how to pour the perfect amount of leafs on a tulip, or how to craft the cutest heart, but the rush of competition can derail the most artistic of pros.  

“You really can’t practice for this,” Rosella Coffee’s Meagan Anderson, a relative newcomer to the coffee game, said while pouring out another latte during a busy Friday morning at the shop. 

For its one-year anniversary, TNT returns to Merit Roasting Co. off Presa Street on October 13 from 6 to 9 p.m. Donations are requested from spectators with proceeds going to the Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas. The winner will take home a one-night stay at Hotel Emma. Not a barista? Try your luck — TNTs are open to all.  

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