Pouring Into the Other’s Cup: How One Latte Art Competition is Redefining Community

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Back in my days as a barista, I was thrilled to close shop with my “work besties.”

A work bestie is defined as:

  • a co-worker who shares a wicked sense of humor
  • complimentary tastes in music
  • a penchant for inside jokes, and
  • the kind of person you can cry to in the walk-in

When working the front line of a coffee shop shakes your faith, your work bestie is beside you in the trenches. They are happy to fill your hoppers, sneak you a chocolate croissant, and come running with a cloth and hot water when something inevitably spills on your apron.

In 2021, after nine years of service, I hung my milk-stained denim apron and mourned the loss of this camaraderie. The 9-hour Sunday morning shift that used to rob me of all energy and inspiration suddenly felt like a huge loss. Almost a decade of what I knew as my routine, source of income, and primary source of social life suddenly “Poof!” disappeared.

In 2021, I found it again.

On a summer morning in Atlanta, I walked into a harshly-lit convention center carrying a Nikon Camera and a toolkit to install espresso machines for a latte art competition. I was unaware that I was about to meet a collective of baristas who genuinely desire to compete, support, and inspire their peers who have now become my new’ work besties’.

LAWCO: Where the Heart Is

The Latte Art World Championship Open is hosted by Coffee Fest, a business-to-business (B2B) trade show that appeals to cafe specialists, business owners, consultants, and operation managers. In addition to the network-friendly show floor, Coffee Fest hosts panels, workshops, and classes led by industry professionals. 

Coffee Fest’s dazzling showstoppers are the competitions: one is a cold brew competition hosted by Alto Cold Brew. The other? You guessed it: the Latte Art World Championship Open, or LAWCO for short.

In my coffee years, I attended many latte art throwdowns; most of these events possessed the scent of brute competition. When I was living in New York City, I recall attending these competitions and witnessing an unfurling of icy temperaments as the tournaments progressed, otherwise unseen except for this environment. At the time, I was only a few years into my career in specialty coffee and felt perplexed that a competition, where the prize was a box of oat milk or a five-panel hat, bred contention and adversity. Was this not supposed to be a welcoming and hospitable safe place?

LAWCO has no room for that and makes way for a supportive, lively barista community with inside jokes, witty nicknames, and shared experiences over the years.

“There are always goals you [want] to achieve when doing these things, but I’m in it for the love, community, fellowship, and memories,” says multi-title LAWCO champion Proph.

When I fired my camera and started photographing the competition in Atlanta, the scene looked different than the throwdowns of my past. What I captured felt warm, inviting, and supportive. I was expecting to catch sinister glares and puffed-up feathers, but instead, I captured a gesture of support and solidarity in every round.

A Community Built Without Limits

When competitors are pouring, the floor is theirs. The buzzing sounds of the crowd are not chit-chat but cheers of support for their peers. Former champions like Proph, Piyapat ‘Flook’ Lapteerawut, Gerald Roldan, and Sean Ben-Zvi watch their hybrid friend-opponents with delight, almost forgetting they are in competition with each other.

Roldan, a 2021 Portland champ who travels to every competition from Puerto Rico, describes the community as a “place that we have to [all grow] together.” An individual’s win is a win for all.

The show floor is a welcoming space. To Ben-Zvi, it’s “knowing that you can [truly] be yourself with a bunch of people who are also truly themselves. Everyone feels loved and accepted”. Ben-Zvi was inspired by the love and support of her peers to start competing, including her girlfriend Emilee Bryant, two-time Latte World champion and respected educator in their industry.

In 2021, a member of the latte art community and 2nd-place Atlanta 2021 winner, Donald Perdomo, chose to complete his last few rounds barefoot. It was a way to ground himself and center his energy. Unfortunately, Donald received some offensive comments via Instagram about his choice.

How did the LAWCO community respond? By dubbing Donald “The Barefoot Barista” and celebrating his new super-hero status. At the Anaheim competition, the judges took a moment to ‘bare it all’ and judged shoe-less during Perdomo’s turn in the semi-finals. Donald makes it a point to compete barefoot in every heat as a way to convert negativity into food for competing.

Walk Away a Better Barista

Winning the LAWCO trophy and bragging rights is great. Still, I recall many conversations during Coffee Fest after parties and socials where competitors are happiest to be with each other again. 

It is evident during rounds between friends. Joseph Gonzalez and Javier Alvarez of Espresso State of Mind make it a goal to fist-bump or enthusiastically embrace each other before and after each heat. I have captured video footage of Roldan, post-defeat, gleefully throwing his arms around that cycle’s winner, Perdomo. As the winner was announced in the last round of the event of 2021 in Portland, I captured a touching moment: Proph with an overwhelming sense of pride for the new champion, Roldan. It was like the loss was immediately filled with a brotherly love for his peer. 

Competitors regularly cheer and lift each other up, but the competition also fosters moments of self-reflection. Through successes and failures, many of the competitors return year after year stronger, more self-assured, and better equipped to deal with losses

“One of the big things I’ve learned is to be nicer to myself. Competing can be intense, and even with preparation, we (myself many times) sometimes fail to execute,” says Perdomo. “It can leave you wondering how it happened, especially with all the work and preparation, and I’ve gotten so upset with myself. In those times, I was lucky enough to have a good community that reminded me to be nicer to myself and learn everything I possibly could from that failure.” 

Lapteerawut sees LAWCO as a way to improve the individual and the collective “… It’s all about improving the standard of the latte art community. We’re all baristas who share the same passion (which [for us] is latte art). It made me [realize] that everything I did [is] not about me or myself; It’s about other people. The ultimate goal is to inspire people and help them”. Their recent triumph as first-place winner in the United States Latte Art Championships, a new competition hosted by the United States Coffee Championships that premiered at the 2022 Boston Expo, may be the springboard for Lapteerawut to inspire many competitors in the community. 

There is Room for You, Too

Celia Brecht of Chicago is excited to be competing for the first time in the Chicago Coffee Fest, occurring at the end of June 2022. “I am genuinely excited to meet the people in this industry that I have looked up to for years. I have been following many of the other competitors on Instagram for a long time, admiring their latte art and wins from afar. Now I get to see them compete in person and be involved myself..”

Proph gives this piece of advice for competitors: “… It’s never you vs. your opponent: it’s you vs. you. [The] only thing you can control is your outcome, not the opponent. So, give it your best and remember to enjoy the moment”.

Lapteerawut is the first-time competitor’s cheerleader. “…I [tell] everyone to compete even though they know that they are not going to win. The experience on the stage is not a thing that you can find every day by working in a coffee shop, right? So don’t miss a chance to practice.”

A living, breathing group like this does not grow and improve without a continuous flow of new energy plus a boundless supply of love and support from the original members. As we all have learned over the last few years, a community full of work besties keeps the shop operating and the future (and your apron) bright.

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Casey Chartier-Vignapiano

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