League of Lattes pits barista against barista every month 

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Whether you’re talking cooking, cocktails or even coffee, there’s nothing like a little friendly competition to build interest. Local food fans fill up kitchens to watch their favorite chefs compete, cocktail aficionados follow the city’s top bartenders in similar contests, and now Indy’s competitive coffee culture is growing as well – thanks to monthly League of Lattes throw downs organized by Bee Coffee Roasters’ Andy Gilman.

He and business partner B.J. Davis have worked for years to boost interest in quality coffee in Indianapolis, but the question remained: How do you build a coffee culture?

Apparently, it starts with the baristas and grows from there. At least that’s what Gilman has discovered with his monthly latte art throw downs.

The competitions, in which baristas compete to create the best designs in the frothed milk atop a cup of coffee, are helping to create a better coffee culture for all of Indianapolis.

“I was at a coffee fest in St. Louis last year,” he said, “and I went to a talk about building coffee culture in your city.”
There, he said, “the barista culture built the coffee culture.”

Baristas in St. Louis, he said, started getting together to test out equipment, which lead to competitions. That lead to more excitement and more interest from the general public.

“Baristas from the city who don’t normally meet each other were talking to each other,” he said. “The barista culture exploded, and people started caring about what they were doing more.”

Gilman came back from the fest with that nugget of information and was determined to do more, and Davis said she has definitely seen interest grow.

“I have been trying to build barista community in Indianapolis for several years,” she said. “But Andy came on board, and all of the sudden it seems the coffee culture in Indianapolis just exploded over the last two years.”

That explosion of interest is what’s fueling events like the latte throw downs.

“We have more and more people getting more and more interested in coffee and quality coffee,” Davis said. “And the latte art is just kind of like the icing on the cake. The cake is the best part, which is the coffee, but doing that latte art is like that little bit of edge that gives you something that people remember and talk about. And it’s really a lot of fun for the baristas.”

Since January, Gilman has organized monthly League of Lattes throw downs for the city’s growing cadre of baristas, competitions that draw between 20 and 25 entrants each month. Last month’s competition was held at Pearings, and Levi McClish of Abbey Coffee Company in Marion won. The next event is April 30 at Quills Coffee, a new shop located at 335 W. Ninth St. Practice starts at 6:30 p.m.; the competition gets going at 7 p.m.

The season, Gilman says, will run through September.

“I didn’t want to just stop with one,” he said. “And so I thought of the idea of doing a season, like a sports season, and so we’re doing nine months. We do a bracket-style thing, and as you place through the night, I take the score using the points from the Indianapolis 500. So you have standings throughout the season.”

There is no fee to participate (or to watch the competitions), and even home latte artists can compete.

Ivy Tech culinary instructor Thom England served as a judge at last month’s competition.

“It’s exciting to see so many baristas here competing, first of all,” he said, “and to see how the coffee culture is evolving in Indianapolis. It’s really neat to see people on a daily basis who are doing this stuff who are really taking it to the next level.”

As to how the latte designs are judged, Jay Cunningham, of Intelligentsia Coffee and Kilogram Tea in Chicago, said it’s simple. “You basically evaluate things like contrast, texture, design obviously. Symmetry. Composure. And you kind of chose which drink that you’d be more likely to be attracted to.”

I judged the recent competition as well, and while sometimes there was a clear winner – a design that was beautifully composed, centered in the cup and neatly made – other rounds were tougher to call.

When that happens, Cunningham said, “you go with your gut and, based on those criteria, which one you think is fulfilling. It’s sort of like which one is sexier. Which one you’d want to reach for and take a swig of.”

Jolene Ketzenberger covers local food at EatDrinkIndy.com. Follow her on Twitter @JKetzenberger and on Instagram @joleneketzenberger.

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