By Meredith Wagner | Arts & Life Editor
A crowd of about 50 gathered over fresh espresso and steamed milk Thursday night. Despite the tempting aroma of ground coffee in the air, the beverages were not prepared for consumption. Pinewood Coffee Bar, located at the intersection of 23rd and Austin Ave., hosted their first latte art competition, referred to by baristas as a “throw-down,” in which 36 hopeful contestants poured their hearts and souls — and the best tulip they could conjure — into porcelain blue cups.
A tournament bracket was gradually composed as interested coffee lovers paid the $5 fee and added their names to the list. Beginning at 8:15 p.m., contestants would face head-to-head — more accurately, pitcher-to-pitcher — basking in the glow of Pinewood’s shiny La Marzzocco espresso machine.
The first round ensued in a frenzy of shouts and excitement. MC and co-owner of Pinewood, Dylan Washington, announced the rules with enthusiasm. The bracket would progress slowly because only one espresso machine would be used; thus, opponents would face each other one-on-one, one pair at a time. Playing cards were drawn as each duo approached the machine. The numbers and suits on the cards determined the size of cup used and the design to be made for each round.
Heart cards required a pour of the foundational “heart” design. Hearts serve as the base for more complicated designs; however, for some baristas, it was a challenge to get back to the basics when they had already excelled to higher ground.
Spade cards called for a “tulip” design, which is essentially the same motion used to create a heart, but repeated multiple times. Club cards called for a “rosetta,” and diamonds for “barista’s choice,” or a freestyle round.
Additionally, the numbers on the cards determined the size of the drink. For an ace, baristas would pour a traditional macchiato, which was composed of a single shot of espresso and two ounces of steamed milk. Cards numbered two through four signaled a cortado, a single shot of espresso and four ounces of milk. Five through 10 cards beckoned a cappuccino, which bears six ounces of milk, and finally, the face cards signaled a latte, which traditionally has eight ounces of milk.
To ensure a fair competition, all shots of espresso were pulled by other co-owner of Pinewood, JD Beard. Thus, the competitor was responsible for two things: steaming the milk (which, if executed poorly, can greatly affect the outcome of the design), and pouring the steamed milk into the espresso in a controlled yet creative fashion. A panel of three experienced judges determined each person’s fate.
To many dedicated baristas, latte art is exactly as it is described: an art form. For coffee connoisseurs in more coffee-friendly cities like Austin and Seattle, throw downs are a common reason for gathering, but Waco’s growing coffee scene has created the space and interest among the community to make events like this a success.
Whitney senior Joseph Brower has been the Head Barista just shy of two months at local coffee shop Common Grounds. Brower said this competition has been on his mind for quite some time. “On shift [at work], every opportunity that I had, I would pour and analyze my weak points,” he said.
Brower also expressed gratefulness for the coffee scene’s recent expansion.
“Waco’s coffee [scene], with the addition of Pinewood, has created a really good community,” Brower said. “It’s a bonding thing for everybody.”
Common Grounds employee and Waco native Sam Evans also expressed feelings of competitiveness, especially being surrounded by his peers.
“I don’t really care that much, but since it’s a Waco-specific [competition], I want to do well because I know all these people on a personal level,” Evans said. “And there are certain people that I really want to beat.”
Baristas from local shops, including Dichotomy, Common Grounds and Pinewood, all competed. Some even traveled for the event in order to compete, making the trek from nearby areas like Temple, Denton and Belton.
In contrast to Brower and Evans, Pinewood barista Natalie Ramirez hadn’t been preparing for the competition at all.
“I just learned how to steam milk and pour it last week,” she said. “And I would say that I feel very proud to at least have competed and put myself out there.”
As rounds ensued, and contestants were dealt their fate, the task at hand seemed to evolve into something slightly more tense.
Nearly thirty minutes into the event, Washington chimed in — “You’re probably wondering if we’re going to play this song all night. The answer is no. This is just the first round. During the second round, we’ll put a different song on repeat.”
A light-heartedness reestablished in the packed, tiny space, the chaos ensued effortlessly.
DeRidder, LA senior Aimee Bennett, also a Common Grounds employee, said she was glad to see how the competition was bringing everyone together. “I think it’s cool that all these people are coming together representing different businesses,” she said.
If one thing was evident, it was the cherished commodity’s function as a tool for connection. Coffee is a staple in American culture, but more so, the gathering it often inspires can be the beginning of a lasting memory.