Baristas bring their best latte foam designs to Portland tournament

Posted Jan. 27, 2012, at 1:24 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — Once a month or so, they come. Some rookies, some veterans. All seeking the four weeks of bragging rights in the Portland coffee community that come from a Thursday Night Throwdown title.

On the final Thursday of most months, Bard Coffee hosts a raucous playoff style competition to see who can whip up the best art in a head of latte foam.

Jeremy Pelkey, owner of the Middle Street coffee shop, said between 20 and 50 baristas of varying experience levels from throughout greater Portland come to test their mettle in the regular event.

“We get everything from professional baristas to home baristas to people just interested in coffee,” Pelkey told the Bangor Daily News. “We’re always amazed at the talent out there. We have people who have never done it before, so we give them quick little tutorials on the machine and let them have fun.”

In the frothy caps atop Throwdown mugs, caffeinated competitors twirl the brown and white foam into hearts, leaves, trees and whatever other designs they can come up with. Live music is brought in to complete the festive atmosphere as live judges decide which latte artists advance through the rounds of competition.

In this unique challenge, judges unscientifically assign points for qualities such as artistic design and degree of difficulty, Pelkey said.

Other local businesses donate prizes to be awarded to the top finishers, with the spoils having included gift certificates, mugs, massages, board games and T-shirts over the nearly two years Bard has been hosting the events.

For the most recent Throwdown, the evening’s sponsors were Aurora Provisions, Bull Moose Music, Brian Boru, Local Sprouts, Life Is Good, Coffee By Design, Nickelodeon Cinemas, Sonny’s, Old Port Wine Merchants and Cigar Shoppe, and Homegrown Herb & Tea.

Competitors pay $5 for a spot in the tournament, with all of the entry fees donated to Coffee Kids, an organization that works to promote family education, health awareness and financial security in coffee-growing Latin American communities.

Pelkey said the community among coffee businesses in Maine’s largest city has spurred friendly rivalries in the Thursday night fundraisers.

“In the beginning, we were very ‘latte art’ focused here at Bard, and not a lot of people wanted to come in here to our house,” Pelkey said. “We were hoping not to have an intimidation factor. For a little while, only Bard people were winning, and it was a bit concerning. But people started to go back to their shops and work on their style, and we’ve seen people from other places come and perform really well.

“The [Coffee By Design] people have a great crew, so when they show up [it’s a challenge,]” he continued. “And sometimes we see the Starbucks crew come over.”

But while the winner can take the evening’s prizes and bragging rights, Pelkey said things never get chippy. The participants remember it’s all for a good cause, he said.

“We never want to take it to a place where it’s too competitive, where baristas are fighting with each other or anything,” he said. “We always want to make it fun for everybody and to support Coffee Kids.”

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