I’m sitting at the counter at Halcyon Coffee Bar and Lounge at the Blue Star Arts Complex, anticipating the arrival of a smooth latte.
When barista John Lauber IV finishes his pour and sets the beverage down in front of me, however, I’m struck by the flourish in the whipped milk skimming the brew: A tulip that’s almost too pretty to drink.
San Antonio is becoming native habitat not only for exotic blends of coffee, but coffee art such as that created by Lauber, who has organized the Latte Art Throwdown, a chance for local baristas to demonstrate try own design prowess with in latte foam.
“Pour Your Masterpiece,” scheduled for Sept. 25 at Halcyon Southtown, is designed to bring together San Antonio’s coffee shop workers, inspire some friendly competition, and encourage creativity and coffee drinking, Lauber said.
“We want to bring people together to have fun and celebrate the culture of coffee in San Antonio,” Lauber said. “Portland and Seattle both have a crazy good coffee culture, so I’d like to see if we can try to get San Antonio to that point while also bringing people to watch and get more engaged in pouring coffee.”
“The goal is to get as many coffee shops to participate as possible,” he said.
On the night of the Throwdown, the participants will work at a corner table while the baristas steam milk in 10-ounce mugs and Lauber pours espresso shots.
Contestants will have one chance to free-pour, or lay the steamed milk into the espresso shot simply by pouring it into the mug, to form their best heart, tulip or rosette design and will be scored by a panel of three judges based on definition, overall cup creativity, and appeal.
Judges won’t be nitpicking the individual creations, though they will be looking for any particular flair that stands out among the contestants’ cups, Lauber noted.
He said that while latte art could be challenging because of the skill involved in mastering the pour, the competition is designed to be fun.
“People might be too nervous to participate, but we really want them to because it’s a fun opportunity to get better at pouring and also to learn more about coffee.”
There will be gifts for all competitors, and first, second and third-place prizes will include gift cards to Halcyon and Brown Coffee, a participating coffee shop that is co-sponsoring the event and providing some of the promotion, prizes, and brewing equipment.
Rafael Mantilla, a barista at Brown Coffee who will be competing at the throwdown, said he hopes to see the competition generate more interest in coffee and coffee pouring in San Antonio.
"The contestants at Halcyon will be free-pouring in coffee mugs, but baristas also drop texturized milk into espresso and then use a toothpick to scoop a little of the brown crema of espresso and paint something into the white textured milk," he said.
As a member of the Barista Guild of America, Mantilla said he is part of a large community of baristas who hold competitions for fun but also to pique the interest of coffee drinkers of varying interest and experience, and that he'd like to see a community grow in South Texas.
While latte art contests are relatively new to San Antonio, coffee drinkers and artists have been taking a shot at creating the perfect – or at least, the most stylish – pour on the East and West coasts for decades, upping the ante through the perks of competition and creating new and more elaborate, meaningful presentations.
Lauber said this month's competition hopefully will build steam and attract customers and people from other San Antonio coffee establishments, including Local Coffee, Olmos Perk, Rosella, and Sip.
He said he participated in a latte art competition in Houston, home of Katz Coffee, a popular brand offered at Halcyon, and also has attended contests in Austin, adding that he would like to see more incentives for people to compete through prizes and publicity.
Sign-up for the Latte Art Throwdown will begin at 6 p.m. with a $5 buy-in, and the throwdown will follow at 7 p.m.
For more information about the Latte Art Throwdown, visit Halcyon Southtown’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/HalcyonSouthtown.
*Featured image: Lauber stands at the counter at Halcyon with a tulip-laced latte on display. Photo by Katherine Nickas.