I first started drinking coffee in the summer of 1999 when I worked at the Acoustic Cafe in Eau Claire, WI. At that point I drank flavored brews ("highlander grog" being one of my favorites, partly for the name's sake). My introduction to the espresso machine for that job lasted less than five minutes and consisted mostly of, "warm the milk here and press this button for the shots." I cringe when I think of the hideous drinks I served people back then simply because, like so many baristas, I didn't know any better.
That summer I visited Libby in St. Paul. (We were decidedly "just friends" then!). She took me to a small, dark, somewhat pretentious coffee shop called Amore. I remember I ordered a short vanilla latte. After just a couple of sips, I realized that the drink I had in my hand was far more delicious than anything I knew how to make. I had encountered a whole new level, and it was exciting.
Three years later, after graduating from college and moving to St. Paul, I started working at Amore Coffee. Chip, who owned Amore at that time, took a much more studied approach to barista training. He spoke of quality, consistency, and hinted of his own past studying with some guru in Seattle. I learned how to make drinks as good as the latte that amazed me a few years ago.
Things stayed the same for a long time after that. I thought we had the best coffee in town, and we very well might have. I knew other good baristas, but nobody that knocked my socks off. Then one day we hired a cocky post-modern preppy kid named Billy. I made him a latte. He wasn't impressed. He made me one. I was impressed. He could steam milk finer than I could. He could free-pour perfect, pretty lattes with just the right amount of milk and no spoon. He left town within a few weeks, but he'd made his mark. Again, I'd encountered a new level.
After that, I started running into others whom I thought of as "rock star" baristas. On a return trip to Eau Clarie I had an amazingly beautiful latte at my old favorite place, Racy D' Lenes Very Coffee Lounge. It turns out that while I'd been living in St. Paul the business had been bought by someone who'd spent time in Seattle.
The biggest encounter for me, though, came at Kopplin's Coffee, where I got to know two guys named Andrew who could pour the prettiest lattes I'd ever seen. I got particularly hooked on a video my buddy Pat took of one of the Andrews pouring a leafy design called a rosetta. I watched it over and over again. I wanted to be able to do that! I looked at instructions online and chatted with both Andrews. Within a couple of weeks and a lot of reworking of my espresso machine techniques I started pouring a few sickly little rosettas and serving them to costumers. They were impressed because they'd never seen anything like it before, but I just wanted to make them look more like the amazing ones I'd seen examples of!
So here I am, just barely stepping up into my latte art adventure. The picture on top of this post I took yesterday. It's currently got four stars on ratemyrosetta.com. I want to get better. Maybe I'll even compete some day. Does it really matter? I'm not sure, but I'm having a lot of fun.