For area baristas, coffee is an art form
Picking up a cup of coffee is no longer a choice between straight black or cream.
As the morning staple enjoys more popularity than ever, independent shops dot the Texas coast offering wide-ranging menus that some baristas describe as an endless selection.
There’s mocha, a chocolate-flavored variant of a latte sometimes topped with whipped cream. Or an Americano, which consists of hot water added to a shot of espresso. Then there’s cortado, an espresso cut with a little bit of warm milk.
And making the perfect cup of joe isn’t just about pushing a button on a machine.
Baristas might go through extensive training and are constantly practicing different drinks and techniques to hone their craft. In some cases, a piping hot beverage may be topped off with an intricate design of a chain of hearts or a tulip.
At Mod Coffeehouse in Galveston’s downtown, where University of Texas Medical Branch students cram for tests and isle business owners and artists mingle, a popular beverage is the flat white, a coffee drink that originated in Australia and is made by pouring velvety-textured milk over a shot of espresso.
Two longtime baristas, Hanna Gonzales and Cory Clark, even went to Barista Camp in Atlanta last year to learn more about making specialty coffees.
The training entailed about eight classes, a practical exam and a written exam, said Gonzales, a barista at Mod for more than four years. Those classes ranged from coffee seeds to steaming milk to customer service.
“There’s a whole coffee chain of custody from seed to cup, which you’re taught to honor,” Gonzales said.
The classes also dived into latte art, designs poured from frothed, steamed milk on top of a coffee beverage. To make latte art, the drink has to be hot. And the micro foaming during the milk steaming process is essential. The design itself comes down to technicalities, including the distance from which the milk is poured and the way a preparer moves the hand.
“If there’s latte art happening, chances are eight out of 10 times the drink is well made,” Gonzales said.
Some baristas measure their latte art talents through competitions. There’s even a World Latte Art Championship, which this year will be held in Shanghai, China. Closer to home, Houston coffee houses frequently host “latte art throw-downs,” where baristas go to show off their skills.
“You’re judged on contact, symmetry and color infusion,” Gonzales said.
Competitions are a series of one-on-one rounds until the last two standing baristas square off, she said.
“The culture is just so cool, it’s super laid-back,” she said. “You’re watching other people and learning from other people in these throw-downs who all have the same passion.”
Coffee culture is the big attraction, especially at smaller, independently owned shops. Gonzales worked at Starbucks before joining Mod. While she enjoyed Starbucks, her experience there was worlds apart from Mod, she said.
“It’s so much different working for a mom-and-pop, and I don’t think I could ever go back,” she said. “There’s this strong sense of community and people linger with their drinks and catch up with each other.”
As an added bonus, the baristas are incredibly passionate about the craft, she said. When she goes out for coffee on her own, Gonzales said she likes to order a flat white, a cortado or just a regular drip coffee — the best drink to use as a measure.
A properly poured shot of espresso is meant to be a little smoky in flavor, she said. Other ways to measure a good cup are by the temperature and texture of the steamed milk, which shouldn’t be too hot and should have a little thickness.
“When you’re getting a good flat white or cortado, you can taste everything that went into it,” she said. “But I try not to be too much of an elitist about it because everything is going to vary from shop to shop and that’s the beauty of specialty coffee.”
For baristas and coffee enthusiasts, the thrill of the new era of coffee is its endless potential. Even after seven years of working as a barista, Gonzales is convinced the menu is ever expansive. Modifying drinks and experimenting with new flavors and combinations is all part of the art.
“I don’t think there’s a stopping point to what you can know or do with coffee,” she said.
The options for different brews and drinks are a result of imagination, creativity and a lot of experimentation, baristas say.
Some drinks are piping hot, while others are cold and refreshing in the hot Texas summer.
At Art of Coffee, which opened about six months ago near the Kemah Boardwalk, trained baristas whip up different caffeinated concoctions — sometimes using specialty adds such as amaretto or coconut.
Baristas there went through training classes in Dallas, where they learned the art of temperature, grinding beans and how to properly clean espresso machines, Jimmy Sims, co-owner of Art of Coffee, said. When they returned, other Kemah residents delighted in getting to be the taste testers, he said.
“Coffee is not just dripping out of a machine anymore,” Sims said. “It’s an art.”