Steam Punks: Baristas Throw Down at Houston's First Latte Art Competition

Judging a latte art competition is deceptively difficult, as we found out on Friday night. Silence Huang, one of our fellow judges and a master barista from Taiwan, drew careful diagrams on the back of our judging sheets, pointing out all the idiosyncrasies and aspects that we should watch for in each cup of latte that hit the table.

"Which of these looks more balanced and symmetrical to you?" he asked, pointing at three different pictures he'd drawn of little foam hearts in a coffee cup. "Do you see how the rosetta is well-defined on one side but not the other? And do you see the direction of the handle? It should be angled 90 degrees from the design, so that you can drink it right-handed." Color infusion, definition, use of space, sheen and even bubbles were all factors in determining a perfectly pulled piece of latte art.

We had no idea.

At the H-Town Latte Art Throwdown on Friday night, more than 20 baristas created one latte apiece for presentation to the three judges. Some were elaborate and intricate designs; some looked like little more than white smudges on top of a mass of brown foam. It was easy to tell which baristas were still learning the craft, which were home baristas and which were just barely holding back as to not crush the competition.

Coffee Groundz was packed tighter than an espresso puck, as coffee nerds and the dozens of baristas themselves gathered around to watch each latte being pulled and poured. Aaron Blanco of the Brown Coffee Co. in San Antonio acted as expediter, carefully transporting each hot cup to the judging table as people oohed and aahed (or occasionally groaned) over the art that decorated the top. Blanco and Huang both pointed out good and bad points in each cup -- "See the bubbles there? How they're coming to the surface and breaking? It looks like Styrofoam. That's not a good thing." -- before we scored each piece of art on six different metrics and passed it along.

​A few of the lattes were consumed by the judges, but most were distributed to a thirsty crowd after being judged. For a $10 donation at the door, the guests were treated not only to great lattes (both inside and outside, at the practice espresso station) but the sheer spectacle of a competition that would shock prize fighters in its fierceness. As it raged inside, guests also competed in their own way for silent auction prizes like a dinner for four at Catalan. Between the door takings and the silent auction proceeds, $2,200 was raised for Coffee Kids over the course of the night.

​In the end, Dan Streetman of Cuvee Coffee outside of Austin took home the grand prize, a bike donated by Bikesport, and the admiration of his fellow baristas. It was only fitting, as Cuvee is a noted training ground for baristas. In fact, Silence Huang is one of Cuvee's current trainers, a skill he showed off later on in the night.

Second place went to Fabio Pontes, Houston's own Brazilian-born barista, while third place went to Jon Meadows of White Rock Coffee in Dallas, who, with his co-worker, came dressed as Mario and Luigi. But even though the main competition was over, the best was yet to come.

​Master baristas such as Max Gonzales from Catalina Coffee and David Buehrer of Tuscany Coffee -- who organized the entire event -- who hadn't competed in the main competition offered a challenge to the assembled baristas: a high-stakes throwdown in the parking lot outside, $20 to get in, winner takes the pot. Within minutes, a $220 pot was at stake and we were judging again, this time alongside Keith Adkins of Fontana Coffee Roasters, the Houston roaster which had donated all the beans for the night.

Over the near-perpetual hiss of steam and the buzz of the espresso grinder, the baristas heckled each other mercilessly and tried to shake their opponents. The smack talk would have made Jim Rome stutter, but it didn't seem to faze the baristas, who poured effortlessly through wry grins and chuckles (and the occasional well-timed comeback). Although Gonzales and Buehrer (and the others who participated) drew beautiful pieces of art in the foam, it was Silence Huang who stunned the crowd and won the pot with his expertly drawn phoenix.

For more photos from the event, head over to our slideshow.

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