“Is it possible that a cup of coffee can make the world a better place?” The owners of Boston’s Ogawa Coffee think so. Their business begins by posing this bold question, and it is brought into practice by seeking out solutions to social, environmental, and artistic excellence within global coffee culture. Its owners are coffee artisans from Kyoto, Japan whose predecessors began roasting beans to perfection in 1952. Yet it wasn’t until May 2015 that they made their international leap to found their second coffee home in Boston.
When I first entered this downtown caffeinated work hub, I was instantly impressed. Their aesthetics seep through the pores of their coffee filters, and are seen in their bleacher-style stadium seating and the sunny tables aside giant glass panes that make its patrons feel like a fancy display for window-shoppers. When I tasted my first sip of their expertly-brewed, tulip-topped flat white, I was over the moon with the same ecstasy that I experienced on the daily from my favorite Viennese third wave coffee specialists. And when I saw the sign subtly placed by the cash register that boldly stated, “Ask about our Latte Art Classes”, I was sold.
Learning to make a latte heart has been a foolish dream of mine since the first time I received one in my cup of coffee (most likely one of the overly-syrupy decaffeinated peppermint mocha from Starbucks that I used to order in high school to make myself feel like an adult despite my dangerous post-drink sugar highs). However, not having even basic coffee-making equipment has been a serious impediment to that ambition. So rather than trying myself, I’ve instead always stared intently at my baristas with hot envy, watching attentively as they’ve frothed and decorated my drinks. Yes, some probably feel awkward under my wide-eyed gaze, while others may think my fascination is a glazed-over sign of boredom.
Fantasizing about latte hearts had gone on for too long, and I was more than ready to take the leap to join this class (but not yet quite ready to make the financial investment for my home collection – decent espresso machines are in the $300 - $500 range at minimum, and the one at Ogawa was over $10,000!).
I showed up to the Saturday night class with a notebook in one hand and my camera in the other, poised and at the ready to document this unforgettable food-blogging experience. The other four participants – two couples dolled up and ready for a date night – were perhaps less personally invested in this opportunity, but nonetheless glowing with excitement for the approaching coffee lovers’ adventure.
The class began with a short educational portion to explain the 3 simple principles components of making Instagram-worthy latte art:
1. Make high-quality espresso
Espresso must be made from only the best of beans that have been roasted by a trusted source to ensure sustainable social and environmental practices – not to mention killer taste. The perfect espresso should have optimal balance, flavor, and tactile sensation on the tongue. Skill in grinding, precision in weighing, and investment in your brewing machine are also pivotal components in ensuring an unforgettable concoction.
2. Steam your milk to perfection
Whole milk is the easiest to work with in creating latte art, followed by a close tie between oat milk (the latest craze from coffee wizards in the U.K.) and soy milk. The perfect steamed milk is not scalding at the bottom of the pitcher and foamy at the top, but rather a consistently steamy froth with a “warm shower” feel to the touch. To make this dream a reality, this involves knowledge of which quadrant of the pitcher and how deep to place the steaming nozzle as well as how long to leave it there. Enroll in Ogawa’s class for the secrets of this procedure to be revealed!
3. Master the pour
The pour is by far the most pivotal component in determining perfection in the heart. For best results, start with the coffee cup of espresso angled at 45° and begin to spill a light and steady stream of foamed milk straight into the espresso to create the “canvas”. Once the canvas is complete, WITHOUT STOPPING (or freaking out), increase the pour rate as you bring the pitcher closer to the coffee’s surface and while tilting the cup to parallel with the table to create the “blob”. Before your cup runneth over, bring the milk pitcher to upright and across the blob to “cut through”, forming the heart’s tip.
Theoretically, all will be well and your heart will be full of joy after following these steps. However, Ogawa’s baristas knew from experience that making a latte heart is not as simple as holding the textbook knowledge in your temporary memory. Thus, part 2 or the class was an open playground for trying out these tips. The two baristas led us each through four hands-on rounds of attempts. The result? Four perfect hearts, right? If only life was truly all rainbows, butterflies, and decorative latte hearts.
My first heart that was guided by the training wheels of my barista was beautiful (literally, all I did was put my hand on the pitcher as he did the work.
Yet the confidence boost didn’t last for long. During my second attempt, I FREAKED OUT when I saw my canvas was complete and shakily stopped pouring, poured a giant drop, and cut through all in the same second. It wasn’t pretty.
Thankfully, my grip steadied by my third attempt. However, this time, my cup ranneth over, and I tried to save it with a mini heart on top of the mess.
Three strikes and I was out of steam, but I pushed on for my bonus round. After much anticipation, concentration, and begging of the heavens, during my final attempt I made… a blob – a blob that looked a bit like a horse, rather than a heart. So my barista etched a horse face and hooves into it and we called it a day.
The true beauty of latte hearts is that their making is truly a form of art. Art is utterly subjective, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So who’s to say that my latte horse wasn’t fabulous? I may have been a bit confused if I had received it in my own drink, but I also would have Instagram’ed it anyways for the ingenuity of its appearance.
Maybe a cup of coffee truly can make the world a better place if it teaches us to love our indistinguishable blobs just as much as our symmetrical hearts. Perhaps it can make us just a bit sunnier if we decide to treat our baristas to a smile upon the realization of the true level of skill it takes for them to create their artistic excellence.
In any case, my greatest takeaway from the class is that I’m not quite ready for the World Latte Art Championships, nor Boston’s “Latte Art Throwdowns” for baristas. But maybe so after completing Ogawa’s Intermediate Level Latte Art Class that features tulip-making instruction and even more “playtime”! Gold is in sight, and the glory learning more about this unique form of art reigns free in the fantasies that this class unleashed within my hungry mind.
TO BE CONTINUED.