Baristas add creativity to lattés



Jennifer yang photos


The secret to smiling on a Monday morning may just be having something beautiful to look at with your morning latté.


Three years ago, Toronto barista Stuart Ross was standing in Seattle’s famed Espresso Vivace café when something felt amiss.

It was a Monday morning, he was in a room full of caffeine-junkies — and yet, everywhere he looked, people were beaming. “What coffee shop can you go to and have people walk out smiling?” Ross remembers wondering.

The answer came in his latté — or rather, on top of it. The barista was pouring heart designs into the foam of people’s lattés and cappuccinos. “I was like, hands down, I have to learn how to do this!” Ross says.

After enlisting the tutelage of Espresso Vivace’s owner, Ross brought his newfound skill back to Toronto where from behind the bar of his Granby Street café, Bull Dog Coffee, Ross began spreading the joy with his heart and rosetta-adorned lattés.

Latté art has since become a Bull Dog signature and one of their baristas, Amber Fox, recently won for Best Latté Art in the first ever Toronto Life Latté Art Competition. Her winning creation? An espresso concoction, with Mayan chocolate, cayenne pepper and blueberry honey, skillfully crowned with a dainty wreath.

Latté art doesn’t necessarily imply the best quality coffee, Ross says, but it is a telltale sign of a skilled and passionate barista.

It also requires no extra time to make, explains Ross; just some perfect espresso, milk and sleight of hand.

For Ross, his palette of frothy designs has come to include a fire-breathing dragon and a bulldog. He says the café gets its share of requests, too — the Mona Lisa, for one — and some of Fox’s male customers even ask her to attempt a little, er, “self-portraiture.”

“All of Amber’s fireman fan club wants her to do specialty body parts,” Ross laughs. “If you turn a heart upside down, you have two beautiful cheeks!” That’s sure to put a smile on anyone’s face.

Coffee tips

Colin Newell

CoffeeTips01 & CoffeeTips02: Coffee connoisseur Colin Newell has advice for brewing that pitch perfect cup of coffee, right in your very own home.

Trying to recreate that café-caliber cuppa joe is like attempting the fabulous blowout a hairstylist once gave you - it never quite turns out the same way. According to the Coffee Association of Canada, however, 66 per cent of the coffee we drink is at home. So why not learn to make that barista-perfect cup of coffee? We asked coffee experts to share some of their wisdom.

Get fresh. Find a good roaster in your area and buy only a week's supply of coffee at a time. “Once coffee's roasted, it's only really fresh for about 10 to 15 days,” says Colin Newell, the editor of and a longtime caffeine connoisseur. Coffee should then be grinded only just before you brew. “Whole beans provide less surface area for your coffee to oxidize,” explains Amber Fox, seasoned barista and the winner of Toronto's first Latté Art Competition. “As soon as you expose coffee to air, it begins to oxidize and go stale.”

Invest in a burr grinder. “It consistently grinds coffee to one particular grade of fineness,” explains Newell. “As water's running through, it picks up a consistent amount of solids.” A burr grinder works like a millstone and is better than a blade grinder, explains Newell, because the latter chops your beans too randomly, resulting in some over-extracted coffee.

Opt for a French Press over a drip machine. “It's a known way to extract most of the flavours out of coffee,” says barista Mark Krause, a 2006 National Barista Championships regional winner. “All the oils are retained right there in the coffee one hundred per cent.” An added bonus is the fact that French Presses are relatively inexpensive, says Fox. To use one, she suggests adding two tablespoons of fresh grinds into your French Press and pouring in water heated to just below the boil. Give the mixture a little stir, put in the press (without depressing it quite yet) and let the coffee sit for three to four minutes before drinking.

If you're gonna drip, drip it right. “A lot of electric drip brewers don't produce good enough coffee because they don't heat up the water enough,” Newell explains. A good machine will heat to an ideal temperature of about 98 to 99 degrees Celsius, says Newell. Water that's too cold results in bitter coffee and water that's too hot will make your coffee taste burnt. Fox also says that if you're going to use a drip machine, use a built-in filter. Paper filters will sop all the oils - and therefore flavour - right out of your brew.