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Cafe owner shows a latte love crafting designs in coffee drinks

September 24, 2008
By The Canadian Press


Sept. 24, 2008,
Toronto – Stuart Ross remembers the Monday morning he visited a Seattle
cafe and noticed something remarkable: every time the customers
received their coffees, huge smiles would spread across their faces.

Sept. 24, 2008, Toronto – Stuart Ross remembers the Monday morning he visited a Seattle cafe and noticed something remarkable: every time the customers received their coffees, huge smiles would spread across their faces.

"I'm like, 'What is going on here?' because they're not smiling at my shop," he recalled as he stood behind the counter of his quaint downtown cafe.

Ross, owner of Bull Dog Coffee, soon unlocked the mystery behind the seemingly contagious grins at Espresso Vivace and has been putting it into practice in his own business ever since.


Ross isn't whipping up standard brews _ he's using his espresso-based beverages as a canvas to craft intricate designs on the surface of every cup.

Since developing decades ago in Italy and expanding to coffee hotbeds like Seattle, latte art has gradually been garnering steam in Canada as a steadily growing number of baristas are learning to whip up foamy creations aimed to appeal to the eye as well as the tastebuds of java lovers.

Before opening Bull Dog Coffee five years ago, Ross was working walking dogs and said he wasn't looking to open a business.

But when he came upon a small storefront steps from Maple Leaf Gardens, Ross liked the location and decided to take the plunge, converting the former hair salon into a bustling new business.

He's been doing latte art for 4 1/2 years, learning the craft from Vivace founder David Schomer, and World Latte Art champion and three-time Canadian Barista champion Sammy Piccolo.

Ross said the training process to become adept at latte art is four to six months, but producing the frothy designs essentially boils down to combining two core ingredients: the perfect shot of espresso and perfectly steamed milk.

Ross said high-quality beans are key to ensure that you get the crema needed to create latte art.

Depending on the temperature and humidity outside, Ross will adjust the time it takes to pull two 30-millilitre (one-ounce) shots of espresso from the freshly ground grinds he measures for each beverage.

"When the humidity goes up, the flow of espresso goes down, and when it's drier outside it will run faster," he said. "To get that perfect shot of espresso, we need to compensate for that, so you're constantly monitoring the flow of it."

Ross said the desired effect is to achieve microfoam milk to the point where it takes on a smooth silkiness, ensuring it's not too hot, too cold or too bubbly.

Typically, the temperature of the milk should be between 60 and 71 degrees C (140 and 160 F).

From there, Ross pours the milk into the espresso, and as it rises to the surface, he starts to unleash his creativity, delicately angling the movement in his wrist as frothy images start to take form.

Before his customers taste the rich concoctions, Ross ensures they first get a feast for the eyes in the form of single or double hearts, rosettas or even a bulldog in foamy white set against a rich, cafe-coloured canvas.

In addition to using the free-pour method, Ross also uses the etching technique, allowing him to make stylized designs using a small tool resembling a tiny wooden pencil when working with chocolates and syrups.

While Ross makes it looks effortless, it takes plenty of practice and patience to learn the art.

Piccolo, a latte artist for eight years who taught Ross at a Toronto-area seminar, trains staff at the Burnaby, B.C., location of Caffe Artigiano, a coffee chain he co-owned with his brothers before selling in 2006.

Piccolo said latte art comes down to a combination of timing, creativity and use of the wrist.

But before even letting his trainees start pouring, they must first master making espresso and master steaming.

"When they're almost perfect at those, then I'll teach them how to pour and by then, they've seen it enough. After 10 times they're pouring hearts," said Piccolo, who estimates he pours 300 to 400 lattes a day.

Piccolo said there is a lot of technique that goes into steaming the milk. Same goes for determining when to extract the espresso. Some taste better extracted at 20 seconds, 30 or even 35 seconds; others may taste better with a finer or a coarser grind, he said.

"It's a lot to learn before you even get to pouring."

Ross says the smiles he first saw beamed at baristas in that Seattle cafe are coming his way. Since opening the city's first coffee shop specializing in latte art, Ross said he regularly draws people from all over who come to experience it.

The images are only temporary, but Ross said he doesn't get bummed out knowing his whipped-up designs eventually fade as they have already resonated as a visual image.

"I think the customer, when I hand them over that heart, the picture's taken right there," he said. "Even though they might put a cover on right away … or even if they put sugar in and stir it up, that picture was already taken."

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