I love coffee, and having worked as a barista in a couple of those pretentious, hipstery specialty shops I can also make a pretty good cup too. Sadly my delightful sarcasm and cutting banter was just too much for management and, indeed, customers and my relationship with well-crafted bean water had to come to an end.
Through my two years working in the industry (which surprises me because it felt like five) I learned a lot about the important things. The best filter coffees are from Central America. The only foam worth your time is micro-foam. If a customer asks you what flavours are in the coffee and you don’t know, just say it’s either chocolatey or fruity and there’s a good 50% chance you’re right. If you’re wrong, they probably won’t notice and might even remark something pretentious like “ah, yes, is that elderberry I can taste?” because they’re too scared to look stupid.
The whole industry, like most industries under this modern neoliberal system we must all suffer, is built on lies.
But do you know what the biggest lie is? It’s latte art. I need to tell you something. Pull your chair up a bit closer. Let me whisper it intimately into your ear which, by the way, you need to clean. Latte art makes your coffee taste worse.
I first came to this realisation whilst spending a month unemployed in New Zealand – a haven for overpriced coffee that tastes like liquid gold. After being sacked for having the audacity to be ill and not wanting to risk vomiting into customers’ drinks (Newmarket cafés are only luxury in the sense that McMansions are luxury) I attended a few trial shifts – including one in a little shop on Ponsonby Road, another McMansion retail strip in a city that is full of them.
Having spent the previous six weeks perfecting my love hearts, I was a little bit taken aback when the manager of the store told me that they don’t do latte art because it is, in her own very Kiwi words, “a wanky waste of time.” Could it be that the extra couple of minutes taken to craft a masterpiece on top of a cup of coffee that will be downed in half the amount of time was just inefficient nonsense? I made myself a double shot flat white, making sure to just get the perfectly textured milk into the cup without caring about how pretty it looked and what I discovered shook me to my very core. It tasted better.
There’s actually some science to back this up. When you properly craft latte art, it forces the crema to the top. What is the crema? It’s the thick layer at the top of espresso – and it tastes awful. It’s necessary because it also contains all of the chocolatey/fruity notes, but when drunk alone you will just notice a whole lot of bitter. This means all of the flavour and bitterness will be at the top of the coffee, and all of the milk and weaker flavours will make up the majority of the coffee.
So why do we do it? For the same reason we wear shoes that damage our feet – it looks pretty. A wee cup of brown milk just doesn’t have the same social media charm of a postmodernist swan or a shape that everyone calls a tulip even though it’s just some curves and a swipe. But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Is latte art really that pretty? Of course not – they all look the same because there’s little room for any actual artistic innovation and the shapes are basic. We just think it looks kinda nice because we’re told it takes a lot of effort.
Now, OK, as someone who took a few months to be able to so much as put a white blob on top of a latte I’m not going to deny there is a certain level of skill required – but it’s wasted skill. You could waste months trying to perfect how milk looks on top of a cup, or you can spend the same amount of time learning a language. The pretty cup globs will be destroyed by some random person’s gaping maw in seconds – the language will last you a lifetime and possibly even get you a better job in an industry that has basic respect for your skills. Don’t stress yourself out because your rosettas are wonky. Stress yourself out over the fact that when you say “a lot” in French it sounds like you’re saying “nice ass” to a native speaker.
So what can you do as a consumer? Well, nothing. You could valiantly declare that you do not want latte art when you order, but then the staff will hate you and make fun of your voice when there are no customers around. If you really do care about taste, destroy the swan on top with a spoon and give it a stir. This also gives you the pleasure of watching Steampunk Bearded Apron Man cry.
It does, however, mean you can calm down a bit when you have a new barista. The basics of making a coffee that tastes good take a lot less time to acquire than the nonsense flourishes take – and most of the specialty places only hire people with experience – so your extra hot, extra shot, coconut soy mocha flat white will still taste great.
Do you want to work as a barista? Aim higher, or move to Australia or New Zealand and never leave. The minimum wage is high, the holidays are bountiful and I believe in Australia you even get extra money on Sundays – unless this neoliberal hell has started sweeping across the outback too.
To read more coffee related content, head here. To read some of my travel content, have a look at this wee link here. Are you an angry barista that spends lots of time filming videos of your swans and spiderwebs? Contact me directly with your vitriol here. Slurp slurp.