Omaha baristas create artful designs in their lattes — and compete against the best in the country.
When Justin Schaffner makes a latte, he doesn't just top it off with boring white foam. He draws in winter scenes, snowmen and flowers.
Schaffner, the owner of Echo Coffee Shop, etches designs on his lattes. He manipulates the foam with a small stick to create elaborate Christmas trees and peacocks.
He creates a three-dimensional portrait of a bear out of the lighter, fluffier foam that tops a cappuccino. He uses the espresso and sometimes even chocolate and cherry syrup to draw his designs.
Schaffner isn't alone. Some of the best baristas in Omaha are sending out their coffee drinks with a piece of art on the top. It's a seal of quality, and it's fun to look at. It's also serious business for coffee artists, who compete against one another to be named best barista.
Schaffner said he tries to send out every single cup with a piece of art on it. His shop, at 1502 S. 10th St., opened in April. Through the summer, baristas sent out drinks with geometric designs, flowers, horses and butterflies. As the cooler weather and holidays settled in, the designs changed to snowy winter scenes, holiday ornaments and a snowman with a small red scarf.
“They mostly happen by accident,” he said. “Then I try to get it where I can do it repeatedly.”
Some of the designs he made up himself, including a peacock and a turkey. Others he took from videos online.
While Schaffner draws designs in the foamy milk, other baristas in the area pour milk directly into shapes atop the coffee.
To pour good latte art, you need textured milk or microfoam, with very dense, packed bubbles. Kait Berreckman, the lead coffee trainer for the baristas at Aromas Coffeehouse, said it should have a consistency similar to wet paint. She describes the taste of the milk as a “naptime” — thick, creamy and warm.
“It's like what I would give to my cat, if I had a cat,” she said.
When the milk is ready, she pours it under the crema, which is the top of the espresso shot. She pours slowly and carefully in a circle, which creates a base for her art, and then brings the pitcher closer to draw the final design. She knows how to draw a heart, tulip, wave heart and rosette — common designs for baristas.
Baristas at Aromas are not required to pour latte art, but many do.
“If your milk is really good and your espresso is really good, it's kind of hard not to pour latte art,” Berreckman said.
Berreckman learned to make latte art while working in a slow Scooter's in Austin, Texas. She watched Youtube videos, then took a class at a coffee shop. She began competing in the art — winning a competition in Lincoln — and has hosted latte throw-downs.
Competition judges typically look for symmetry, contrast, difficulty of pour and texture of the milk.
Isaiah Sheese, an employee at Culprit Cafe and Bakery at 1603 Farnam St., knows firsthand what judges expect. He has competed in several national and regional latte art competitions and went to the U.S. Barista Championships last year. He has placed fourth and sixth in the regional competitions and 36th nationally.
The barista, who has nine years of experience, says he steamed milk for hours to get ready for competitions.
“Olympians are lifting weights and doing push-ups and watching what they eat,” Sheese said. “I'm not able to sleep at night because I drank so much coffee and I'm just sitting there steaming pitcher after pitcher.”
He hopes to win nationals one day. “It's kind of like the 'Iron Chef' of coffee,” he said.
Sheese will get the opportunity to show off his artwork when he opens a coffee shop at 40th and Farnam Streets next year.
“It looks easy, but it really does take a lot of practice,” Sheese said. “Otherwise every coffee shop would be doing it, and every latte would be beautiful.”