Latte Art In STL Is All About Community

By Kelsey Waananen
In Food

Aaron Johnson started his coffee career 13 years ago, when he intermittently served time behind the bar at Starbucks. Back then, he says, Starbucks was still leading the way in the industry—but today diversity rules the scene with coffee shops like Rise, Blueprint, Sump, Comet and others all taking on their own unique identities. And as the new owner of Rise, Johnson can definitely say that in the last five years, St. Louis has stepped up by offering a coffee experience that’s more than just what’s in your cup.

Sump Coffee Jennifer Silverberg

Sump Coffee. Photo by Jennifer Silverberg

This heightened appreciation for the craft of coffee can be seen in the artistry topping the surface of specialty drinks. Blueprint barista Radames Rondall likens latte art to the equivalent of a chef ’s plate presentation in a top restaurant.

“It’s a showcase of skill and mastery,” he says. “It’s a part of the service that we provide—that little touch shows that we are artists at the same time.” Those tulips and rosettas can be “the finishing touch on a lot of hard work,” but they’re also what drive serious baristas to perfect their art a little more each day.

Sump Coffee. Photo by Jennifer Silverberg

Sump Coffee. Photo by Jennifer Silverberg

To truly test themselves, STL’s coffee gurus “throw down.” On any given day, two baristas in the same coffee shop can choose to go head-to-head over the best composition of steamed milk and espresso. And although the baristas battle it out for bragging rights, it’s the customers who win big: In the end, they choose whose art wows them the most—and they walk away with a delicious cup of lovingly created coffee.

But this is during the daytime. When the baristas really feel like laying it down on the line, STL’s tight-knit family of coffee-crafters invite the community to come together for an evening of caffeine-fueled competition at coffee shops throughout the area. Each event is slightly different, but they generally go down bracket-style, with free pour (no tools allowed) designs taking each competitor to the next level. Ultimately one barista takes home the winnings, cobbled together from $5 and $10 buy-ins and reigns supreme—until the next throwdown.

The Veronika Cup at Rise Coffee. Photo by Matt Pfaff

The Veronika Cup at Rise Coffee. Photo by Matt Pfaff

Though it might seem like a high-stakes event, it’s really just a good-time gathering. Johnson speaks to the way Rise hosts: “What we’re really trying to do is to throw a party but have a contest in the background.” For example, their upcoming Halloween party is a costumes-required bash open to the whole neighborhood, but baristas from all over the city will duke it out through the latte-art rounds amid the revelry.

But recently, the community has bonded together for a more serious cause: The Veronika Cup, a three-part series of competitions that benefit Comet barista Veronika Parson, who is facing mounting medical bills after falling through the roof of an abandoned building in the pursuit of urban exploration.

Choosing a winner at The Veronika Cup at Rise Coffee. Photo by Matt Pfaff

Choosing a winner at The Veronika Cup at Rise Coffee. Photo by Matt Pfaff

“The thing about [The Veronika Cup]—and it’s beautiful to see—is that everybody came together and was super-supportive,” Rondall says. “At lot of times, these latte-art throwdowns are always alot of fun…and a way for us to show off our skills—and that’s one aspect of it. The fact that this one was fueled by a cause was really special. It touched me.”

With the first two events raising more than $3,500 for Parson’s medical and living expenses, the community has shown just how much latte art and its fans and crafters can do.

This story appeared in the November 2015 issue. 

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