Latte art is what makes your regular cup of coffee more Instagram-able, Snapchat-able and enviable. Latte art made its American debut in Seattle in the 1980s, but people around the world have developed the practice organically. If you’ve ever wondered how your barista quickly and expertly creates such interesting designs on your morning coffee, I can’t answer that. Latte art takes serious skill. But I can offer some background to help you understand the process that goes into making latte art.

A simple concept with many challenges

The embellishments on top of your coffee are created by pouring steamed milk into an espresso shot. Latte artists simply draw patterns or designs on the top layer of foam. These temporary works of art aren’t actually that simple. Latte art is difficult to create because the espresso shot and the milk have to be just the right condition for it to turn out. The quality of the espresso machine makes a difference too. Baristas require lots of practice before they’re able to perfect coffee cup creations, and they have to be able to draw them under the added pressure of the morning rush.

Matt Westenburg

The science in latte art

There’s an aspect of chemistry to all latte art because it is a mixture of two different substances that don’t really mix. In late art, the coffee part is made up of both coffee oil and brewed coffee. The steamed milk part is called microfoam created by putting air into the milk. When these two parts come together to form coffee art, they separate and degrade quickly. Since the coffee and the microfoam don’t mix well, your late art disappears quickly. If you’re just going to drink your latte, this is not big deal. If you’re planning to post a picture of your latte art, move quickly.

Matt Westenburg

Latte art techniques

Popular designs for late art are hearts and leaf-like ferns called “rosettas” but there are some latte artists famous for their intricate drawings. Most baristas either use the free pouring or the etching technique to create their art. When free pouring, some baristas keep the cup level and others have it at a slight tilt to move the top foam. The barista then moves the pitcher across the latte, usually finishing with a strike into the foam. Etched latte art is performed with a stirrer or another similar tool. These designs don’t last as long as the free poured ones, but etching is faster and more efficient.

Latte artists combine their enthusiasm for coffee and art and pour that collaboration into their designs. Remember to appreciate their efforts next time your latte arrives with a rosetta on top and act quickly to capture the art before it dissolves.