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Drink Cider For Better Coffee

May 23, 2017

If you ever want to get under my skin, insist that the Dunkin’ Donuts makes the best coffee. Surely, there are lots of arguments one can make in support of that fallacious claim. There’s the point about volume and just how much coffee is sold by the chain. There’s a related point on popularity. If the coffee didn’t taste good, people simply wouldn’t drink it. And so on, and so on.

The good news is that the coffee culture in the Capital Region has improved dramatically in the ten years I’ve lived here. We went from having no place at all to go for a reliably good cappuccino, to having enough places that one doesn’t need to cross a river to get one.

Even still, there are people who will absolutely insist the best coffee comes from Dunkin’ Donuts. And that means we have more work to do. Delicious, delicious work.

Some of that work involves going out and supporting these small independent cafes, perhaps paying more or waiting longer for a truly excellent cup of coffee. But there is also something you can do this week, that is not only free, but involves drinking complementary Nine Pin Cider. How does that second part work? I’m glad you asked.

Improving a region’s coffee culture takes two sides. It takes consumers who want better coffee. But it also requires baristas who are committed to improving their skills.

This Thursday, Stacks Espresso on Broadway is hosting another TNT Latte Art Competition which starts at 6pm. Baristas who want to compete, need to pay a $5 entry fee. But for those who want to cheer on their favorite local coffee people, it’s free. There’s music. There’s free Nine Pin Cider. And the last time I went to one of these, there were also plenty of free lattes doing around.

I’ll be there too, reprising my role from a couple years ago as one of the judges.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, what does a latte art competition have to do with better coffee? Or maybe you are being polite, and wouldn’t dream of asking such a thing. But it’s a totally fair question.

Let me give you a little background. The last time I judged a TNT the baristas were mostly from Stacks and Tierra. Now the number of serious coffee shops has exploded and contestants are expected from kru in Saratoga, Superior Merch in Troy, and 3 Fish in Albany. Hopefully it will draw people from the Happy Cappuccino and little pecks too.

It would be grand to see people from other shops that I don’t currently associate with great espresso, because that would indicate that there are people working within those places who care about better coffee.

So how does better latte art translate to better coffee?

Latte art can take many forms. For this contest on Thursday, we’re not talking about drawing faces in foam by dipping a toothpick in the coffee. That’s fun and fanciful. But a contest for that kind of latte art wouldn’t be indicative of a barista’s increasing level of basic skills.

A latte is two things. Espresso and textured milk. And producing great versions of each element requires a different set of expertise. But one thing that is required for each task is a meticulous attention to detail. You can also argue that each requires a confident and steady hand.

The latte art which will be on display Thursday is the free pouring kind. That’s when perfectly textured milk is heated to produce pourable micro foam, which can be blended with espresso, and with a deft hand be turned into all sorts of geometric shapes like leaves, hearts, and tulips. There are more advanced combinations that can form swans, dragons, and other creatures.

Smaller cups of coffee make the task more difficult. I typically order a cortado, which comes in a small glass. Just to get a sense of what I’m talking about, here is an example of a cortado with beautiful latte art, and one attempt that didn’t quite work out.

Sometimes, despite the excellence of the textured milk, the art will fail to materialize.

But here’s something important to remember. A great latte doesn’t require great latte art. It’s a nice touch to be sure. What it demonstrates is that the milk has been properly textured. You can’t make latte art at all with milk that is over-steamed and frothed into something more closely resembling meringue.

So contests like these help to build critical skills. It’s not just about competition, but it’s also about knowledge sharing. Of course, when people try to win, they also work on getting better. And when the people making the coffee are motivated to put in some extra effort, time, and attention, everyone wins.

Now, come and cheer on these heroes of the local coffee scene. Thursday. You may find a talented barista to visit at a shop that’s been off your radar. But at the very least, you can hang out and enjoy some cider in the company of the Capital Region’s greatest coffee lovers.

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