By Jan Mercker
As Loudoun’s café culture blooms, you just might find a tulip in your cup.
For a growing community of young baristas at independent coffee shops, pulling espressos is a craft and pouring lattes is an art form full of gorgeous velvety designs. They’ll have a chance to show their stuff at one of Loudoun’s first latte art competitions Feb. 24 at Blend Coffee Bar.
Blend’s latte art competition is the brainchild of coffee roaster Sam Kayser, co-owner of Lone Oak Coffee. Kayser found enthusiastic partners in Blend owners Tracey Powell and Mimi Backhausen and manager/barista Matt Schlener. The idea is to help build a sense of community among baristas, provide some out-of-the-box entertainment for spectators and create a sense of fun and self-expression in friendly competition.
“In every major city, every barista in every coffee shop knows each other. They meet once a month to do something like this—it’s almost like a union or a guild in that sense,” Kayser said. “We wanted to connect the area baristas, coffee shop owners and roasters and have kind of a big social…It’s something that this area needs…”
As in all serious latte art competitions, baristas will work their magic by pouring only—no doodling with outside instruments allowed. And Kayser said lots of factors come into play, including speed of the pour, distance from the cup, making sure the milk is at exactly the right temperature. Baristas usually start by learning to pour a heart and move onto more intricate designs like the iconic fernlike rosetta and the swirling multi-layered tulip.
Kayser, a former barista who launched Lone Oak two years ago, will be a judge at the Ashburn event.
Blend barista Schlener, 19, is a part-time student at Northern Virginia Community College. The son of missionaries, he grew up outside of Lisbon, Portugal, and fell in love with coffee at early age.
“[In Portugal] there is an espresso bar on the corner of every other street—literally. I have wanted to be a barista since I was about 12 years old, and now it is paying my way through college.”
Schlener got his training from well-known barista and photographer Alex Mangione at The Bean Bar in Village at Leesburg before taking over at Blend last year. He said he’s also learned a lot from German superstar barista Dritan Alsela’s YouTube videos. Schlener is excited both to help put on and compete in the event, which is generating enthusiasm among baristas from Reston to Winchester.
“I think it’s a cool community aspect—not just for the baristas but also the community that can come and chat and hang out,” Schlener said. “It’s a really relaxing event where we can all hang out together and have a good time.”
Organizers are expecting some 30 competitors from around the region, and one of them is well-known to Leesburg coffee lovers. Ben Knighton, 23, has been a barista at King Street Coffee in downtown Leesburg for four years. And when he’s not behind the bar, he’s sometimes hanging out at the shop working on an online degree from Liberty University. Knighton just might bust out his gold standard—the challenging but super-rewarding swan—but says a good rosetta is also pretty darn satisfying.
“It’s not easy but once you get the hang of it, it’s very fun,” Knighton said.
That sense of fun is definitely something these artisan baristas are tuned into—the joy of dialing a perfect espresso and pouring something beautiful in someone’s cup. Knighton has attended a few formal competitions but says he really honed his craft through mini-competitions with a coworker, making art for customers on a daily basis.
“There’s a growing community in Loudoun, which is awesome,” Knighton said. “Lots of other baristas from other shops come in to King Street. I’m always asking them for critiques and giving them something that I like. I would love for it to grow. … I think this competition and continuing to do competitions like this is going to be great for having that camaraderie.”
Bekah Lisk, 21, will travel to the competition from Winchester where she’s a barista at Hopscotch Coffee and Records, where Kayser also got his start.
For Lisk, who also co-owns an event design company called Gilded Gatherings, there’s definitely a big element of artistic expression in latte art. But it’s also about creating a special one-on-one connection with customers, and she appreciates working at an independent shop where quality and craftsmanship are appreciated.
“I definitely boils down to having experienced people who are training you. They make it very clear that they care about the quality, and that shows through the drinks you’re making,” Lisk said. “It shows through the way that you’re connecting with your customers. Everybody can see that you care and that it’s quality, and that really shows through everything that you do.”
Blend’s Latte Art Competition is from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, at Blend Coffee Bar, 43170 Southern Walk Plaza in Ashburn. Sign-ups start at 6 p.m. and pouring begins at 7 p.m. The public is invited to check out the action with a latte or glass of wine or beer. For more information, go to blendcoffeebar.com.