If there’s a fault with artistic geniuses like Van Gogh and Picasso, it’s that their work is inedible.

At the Latte Art Throwdown in San Juan Bautista, humble baristas one-upped the classics by giving the crowd art they could drink.

Latte art is a technique of pouring milky microfoam onto the pale brown crema of a freshly-pulled espresso shot. Depending on foam density, the pourer can create layered patterns. Hearts, rosettas and tulip stacks are popular designs, and frequently show up on Instagram.  

Vertigo Coffee Roasters hosted the event for the second year in a row, drawing a crowd of nearly 100. Among them were 25 baristas who came from as far away as San Luis Obispo and San Francisco to compete. They contended two at a time in knock-out rounds documented on a chalkboard bracket.

Even when not hosting throwdowns, Vertigo is a culturally vibrant local coffee stop in an otherwise quiet residential neighborhood just down the street from Old Mission San Juan Bautista. Owner Dmitri Fridman opened the shop six years ago and named it for the Alfred Hitchcock movie filmed at Mission San Juan Bautista. It’s loved by customers as much for its wood-fired pizza as it is for its coffee and gatherings.

The audience last Friday night was a mixed bunch of locals and visitors with purple and pink hair, beards of all lengths and bass fishing T-shirts. Many were baristas themselves.

“Being in a competition is way different than being behind a bar,” said Rich Lee, a barista at Blue Bottle Coffee in Palo Alto, who wasn’t competing that day. The pressure is on with a crowd watching, and the judging can get technical.

At the U.S. Barista Championships, for one, judges evaluate baristas on not only the taste, aroma and appearance of their drinks, but also their skill in creating them. The three judges at Vertigo were looking mostly at the art.

Lee was there to support Kevin Devera, a fellow barista competing Friday. Devera said the best part of any latte art competition is the drinks: after the judges have their say, they pour each latte into a paper cup and pass it back to the crowd.

Former Vertigo barista Nancy Delgado was there to cheer on Hailey Kemp, a current barista at the same coffeehouse. Kemp also pulled each espresso shot during the competition.

“It’s just a lot of great artists competing,” Kemp said of the throwdown. “You see a lot of competitions with so-so work, but this isn’t that.”

Because of the competition, Kemp didn’t think she would move on from the first round. Although her artwork was spot-on, her latte spilled before the judges could see it. As she predicted, she didn’t advance.

The most daring of baristas poured foam directly in front of the judges. Designs got more and more intricate as the competition progressed. At stake was a grand prize that included $200, a Vertigo Coffee Roasters mug and fancy coffee-making products.  


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