Latte art throwdowns are more than a competition, just as coffee is more than merely a drink

Words and Photos by Kayla Parker
Video by Nadia Valentine, Daniel White and Megan Ellis

The judges are laughing, beers in hand and backs turned as the competitors carefully craft their lattes. They turn around as two lattes are presented to them. They stand up to get a better view, carefully observing for the ABCs of latte art — aesthetics, balance and contrast. They’re also looking at the fill of the cup: Has it been filled to the proper level? An overfilled cup with a drip spilling down the side, or a few centimeters of empty space from the rim of the mug can impact their decision.

Sometimes it’s a no-brainer ⎯ it’s easy to mess up a pour with a large crowd watching and cheering. After a bad pour, one competitor laughs and flicks the foam off the top of the cup toward the judges. She knows she’s lost the round, and the judges laugh with her.

Other times, it’s a tight round. The judges set their beers down, stand up again, look at the coffee in front of them and on the projection screen. They consider the different elements, checking every possible angle and talking amongst themselves.

The energy is contagious. This is the second latte art throwdown hosted in Des Moines by Bridges Coffee, a company dedicated to building the coffee community. The crowd grows as the night goes on, and everyone comes closer to the bar as the rounds advance. A local owner of Mars Café, Daniel Bosman, is just barely beat out in the finals by a three-time world champion, Cabell Tice.

No one leaves disappointed, though. It’s all in good fun and all about building community. That’s what coffee is all about.

Side-by-side at the bar, competitors are careful and concentrated in order to pour the perfect latte.

“Coffee is all about people. From the beginning to the end,” said Asher Van Sickle, winner of the first Thursday Night Throwdown (TNT) in Des Moines.

“Coffee truly is more than a beverage — it’s all about people: people throughout the supply chain like farmers, to baristas, to customers,” Van Sickle said.

The beauty of the coffee world is that it brews connections among individuals. Whether that means friends meeting at a favorite coffee shop or baristas bonding and sharing skills, coffee has the power to bring people together.

“Ultimately, just kind of the undercurrent of the goal of me starting the throwdowns, is to create community and create more customers that are excited about coffee,” said Matthew O’Mealey, founder and owner of Bridges Coffee Company and organizer of Des Moines TNTs.

Bosman was one of the judges at the first throwdown. It was his first time judging a latte art-specific competition (in contrast to the full-out barista competitions). “In the barista competitions it’s fun because you immediately judge the visual appearance of it, but you also get to drink it,” Bosman said. The lattes from the Thursday Night Throwdowns are instead handed out to the crowd, because it’s solely about the look of the latte.

“You have to make these snap visual judgments on the drinks, which 75 percent of the time is easy, depending on the competition,” Bosman said. “But if it’s a really close drink, then things are a little bit different, because you’re like, how do I choose between these two drinks that look really good?

“The latte art competitions are relatively new in the coffee industry,” Bosman said. “It’s only really picked up steam in coffee shops in — that was a good pun — you should use that,” Bosman said, pausing in his train of thought to chuckle. “It started coming into coffee shops I think 10, 15-plus years ago, becoming more and more regular in cities, but by that point they’d been having these barista competitions for awhile, so these latte art competitions, at least to my knowledge, on their own, are new in the last 10 years.”

O’Mealey compares the neighborhood TNTs to the street battles of the dance world. “Think of it like the big national, and then the international competitions, as like, you know how like in teen movies they’ll have the sanctioned dance competitions and then there’s the non-sanctioned street battles? That’s what TNTs are.”

Perfect pours require practice — and patience, as demonstrated by Jake Nelson.

There are different styles of latte art, and sometimes people can win a competition by repeating a single design they’re familiar with. Other times, they might have to mix it up. “As the rounds progress, each section we would change it up a little bit, just to kind of force those who have got this far to do something more specific on demand,” O’Mealey said. The rounds vary from a free pour to a  macchiato challenge at the latest throwdown.

Latte art competitions are primarily regional or city based, but many of the more advanced throwdown competitors have competed at other throwdowns, or even on a national level. “Like Cabell, who was one of the judges, is a three-time barista world champ,” O’Mealey said. For the most recent throwdown, Cabell Tice competed instead of judging. On the smaller stage, he still swept the competition. In the final round, he faced off against Bosman, his fellow judge at the first TNT.

Although the competition aspect is fun and exciting, “I think with the latte art, the barista championships, and all that stuff, it’s a way for baristas basically to come together to travel and do cool things,” Bosman said. “It’s kind of the main goal.”

O’Mealey agreed that it’s not just all about the fun. To help the coffee culture grow, he believes throwdowns should be inviting to everyone in the community.  “Because coffee culture … makes people feel standoffish, like they’re not good enough.” With the TNTs, he hopes that changes.

“I just wanted to see the coffee scene in Des Moines grow,” O’Mealey said. “I think now is the time to do this, to start this flow of barista social hangouts.”

Competition heats up at Scenic Route Bakery’s espresso bar as Cabell Tice steams his milk in preparation for the pour.

Big cities have barista social clubs or organizations that people can buy into. “We’ve seen various versions of this other places, and I was just like, I think all of the pieces of this are here now cause with a bunch of other good shops opening, Scenic Route opened last year, Horizon Line is opening this coming month … there’s a bunch of shops coming in, so now’s the time,” O’Mealey said. “Connecting these new guys, give honor to the old guys that have been around and just make sure, hey, we’re in this together.”

It’s about providing mutual support. The idea is that coffee shops shouldn’t see each other as competition, but rather as colleagues coexisting and collaborating in the same city.

“Because what I would say in talking to the older shops, when shops are really encouraging with one another and actually can appreciate each other’s product … I’d gladly say hey, when you’re not in my neighborhood but you’re in that neighborhood, you know, go see, Grounds for Celebration, for instance,” O’Mealey said. “It’s not just good for them, which it is, but it’s good for the city,” he said. “It’s better for everyone.”

Helping out other coffee shops really is better for everyone, and helps the coffee scene grow as a whole, especially in the Midwest.

“It’s actually a lot more developed and robust of a coffee scene than people assume it is,” O’Mealey said.“The smaller cities like Des Moines are on the cusp of it becoming a big deal.”

Bosman chimed in, “I think one of the things I like best about the Midwest here is that we get kind of from everything, like all the coasts and the Midwest, as far as coffee, culture, and knowledge, shops we go to, and roasters. If you’re specifically in San Francisco or Portland, you may not be able to go to a place like Onyx in Arkansas, and kind of like being in the Midwest we get this cross,” Bosman said. “We kind of have it all, it’s driving through here.”

The baristas agree: Coffee is more than a drink. “Coffee is oftentimes a progression for people,” Van Sickle said. “When I was 12 years old, my grandpa was in the army and he gave me my first cup of coffee and said, you know, ‘You’ve got to drink it black, puts hair on your chest,’ and obviously that was a Folgers cup of coffee,” he said. “I obviously hated it.” But Van Sickle’s love for coffee grew, and here he is now.

“At the end of the day, latte art competitions and things like that, they’re just fun,” Van Sickle said. “It’s fun to participate, and it’s even more fun to win, but the purpose of it is just to facilitate community and get to know the other people in the coffee community, and have a good time.”

Everyone’s a winner when the coffee community becomes more inclusive, but there are also prizes for the TNT winners to sweeten the deal.