In recent years, latte art throwdowns have become a staple of the coffee sector, allowing baristas and coffee enthusiasts to celebrate one of the more artful sides of coffee brewing. While they are broadly more small-scale than national latte art competitions, they can also play an important role in bringing together local coffee communities.
However, with sustainability higher up the agenda than ever for the coffee sector, there are understandably concerns about the sheer volume of milk and coffee that is wasted at each latte art throwdown.
Recognising the popularity of these events and the need to be more sustainable, zero-waste latte art throwdowns have become more popular in recent years. But how are they different? And how do their hosts cut down the waste? To learn more, I spoke to two latte art champions. Read on to find out what they said.
You may also like our article on creating a coffee shop food menu that minimises waste.
What is a latte art throwdown?
Gregory Raymond is Head Barista and Events Manager at Carasso in Geneva. He is also the 2019 and 2020 Swiss Latte Art champion.
He says: “In addition to the national championships, we have small friendly competitions between baristas to have fun and share latte art.”
Although both national and international latte competitions have strict rules for competitors, throwdowns tend to have more relaxed guidelines.
They are usually hosted by coffee shops, who can invite both the public and local coffee professionals to take part – although experience pouring latte art is preferred.
“As many people can compete as possible,” Gregory says. However, generally, an even number of competitors is favourable, as participants usually compete in “knockout” rounds.
Each throwdown host can create its own rules for the competition, but the main aim of a throwdown is to produce the most visually-appealing latte art. For example, The New Zealand Barista Guild has a set of latte art throwdown judging guidelines based on symmetry, colour contrast, use of space in the cup, and overall visual appeal.
Milk should be free-poured, and ideally, there should be no spilling down the side of the cup. Competitors are provided with both milk and espresso, and will usually have the espresso shots extracted for them. This allows them to focus solely on steaming and pouring milk.
The size of each drink is around 260ml (8.8oz), which is the typical size of a small latte in most specialty cafés. This size provides more experienced participants with enough space in the cup to pour high quality latte art.
Competitors will either be told to pour a specific latte art pattern, or can pour a pattern of their choice. Common designs include a heart, rosetta, or tulip.
Each round is timed, typically giving competitors a few minutes to prepare their milk and pour latte art for one beverage. Once poured, the beverage is presented to a panel of judges who decide on a winner for each round.
Producing coffee and milk waste
The global coffee supply chain produces some 23 million tons of waste every year. In coffee shops, this includes leftover steamed milk, spent coffee grounds, and incorrectly-extracted espresso.
This has a cost for businesses, too. Scott Rao estimates that every day, each café in the US wastes around US $15 of milk by pouring too much into pitchers.
Even if baristas pour 30ml (1oz) extra milk into the pitcher for each beverage they make, this could translate to annual losses of around US $700 on milk waste alone.
However, at latte art throwdowns, it’s not only leftover milk and coffee grounds that are classed as waste. The beverages that competitors produce are also technically waste, as they are not being purchased by customers.
“It takes at least 300ml of milk per participant per round, including the shots of espresso,” Gregory explains. “If you have about 20 participants, it creates a significant amount of waste.”
Furthermore, for less-experienced throwdown competitors, it can be difficult to assess how much milk is required for each beverage, especially without measurement indicators in jugs. This can lead to more leftover milk at the end of each round, increasing waste significantly.
Manuela Fensore is the co-founder of Barlady Café and Academy, and the 2019 World Latte Art champion. She believes that good waste management is necessary for throwdowns.
“Event organisers can track milk and coffee usage based on the number of event attendees,” Manuela says.
However, as some throwdowns have no real limit on the number of participants, the number of beverages that are produced can in theory be immense. This, in turn, leads to huge amounts of wasted coffee and milk.
Why do we need to reduce waste?
Around the world, it’s estimated that food waste has an annual global carbon footprint of around 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2.carbon dioxide.
This is largely because most food waste ends up in landfills. In this anaerobic environment, it cannot biodegrade under optimal conditions, and produces significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than it otherwise would.
Furthermore, while milk and espresso can be poured away, coffee grounds are solid food waste. Latte art throwdowns often include 20 or more participants competing in several rounds, so there can be up to several kilograms of spent coffee grounds at the end of the competition.
Around the world, a number of different initiatives are working to create a circular economy that reuses spent coffee grounds. For instance, bio-bean collects coffee grounds from local cafés to create biofuel, turning them into barbecue coals and biomass pellets.
Coffee grounds can also be used as compost or plant food; GroCycle, for example, reuses coffee waste to grow mushrooms that can be commercially sold. Finally, in The @wastingcoffee Guide to Not Wasting Coffee, author Umeko Motoyoshi encourages cafés to donate coffee grounds to any similar local initiatives.
Beyond coffee waste, there is also the issue of the milk to contend with. Cow’s milk is typically used at throwdowns as it generally performs better for latte art than plant-based alternatives.
However, one litre of dairy milk produces around 3.2kg of greenhouse gas emissions – compared to 1kg for soy, or 0.7kg for almond. Last year, it was estimated that the largest dairy companies in the world emit the same levels of greenhouse gases as the entire population of the UK.
In response to concerns over using dairy at throwdowns, more plant-based events have been organised in recent years. For instance, at the 2015 New York Coffee Festival, Pacific Foods hosted a throwdown using only coconut and almond milks to promote more environmentally-friendly coffee events.
Hosting a zero-waste latte art throwdown
Firstly, some events have in recent years started to reuse the beverages that competitors prepare after the event. Once cooled, lattes can then be used to create mocktails or cocktails for attendees or spectators, for instance.
“I participated in an excellent zero waste throwdown as a judge at MAME,” Gregory notes. “All cups were reworked and served as cocktails.”
Oatly has even hosted a number of international zero-waste latte art throwdowns, where competitors’ oat milk beverages are made into beverages for spectators and Umeko also points out in their book that beverages prepared during throwdowns can even then be used in cooking or baking.
But, are there any ways to completely eliminate the use of coffee and milk at latte art throwdowns?
“You can actually replace milk and coffee with alternative products,” Manuela tells me. “Coffee is usually replaced with food colouring; more recently, soap products have been added to water to create the same effect as milk foam.”
One of these products is BCB, Gregory tells me. “It is a liquid which, when added to water, transforms to become [the] equivalent [of] steamed milk,” he explains.
This BCB-water mixture can then be steamed using an espresso machine. One 30ml bottle of BCB can replace up to 20 litres of milk, and will still produce high-quality latte art with every cup.
Manuela also notes that high-level training can also help competitors reduce waste at throwdowns.
“One thing you can do is keep the wrist trained with milk jug exercises,” Manuela explains. “My partner and I, Carmen Clemente, created the ‘Gym Latte Art’, which helps the latte artist with muscle memory.
“It is a programme that trains the muscles that are used while pouring latte art. We have noticed that training these muscles can actually reduce any waste of milk and coffee.”
Alongside training, using better equipment can also minimise waste. Milk jugs used for competitions tend to have smaller and more precise spouts, which allow baristas to pour with more control.
Using these jugs, as well as those with measurement indicators for more precise dosing, can help competitors pour the optimal levels of milk – and waste less.
Although organising coffee events can be challenging, ensuring events remain sustainable is essential in today’s coffee sector.
Wasteless latte art throwdowns can inspire coffee communities to seek out creative ways to be sustainable, and they can even help baristas to be less wasteful during their day-to-day work.
If competitors seek to use as little milk and coffee as possible at throwdowns, they can translate this focus on sustainability to their day-to-day job role. In turn, this helps minimise a coffee shop’s environmental impact, and can save the café more money in the medium and long term.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how to organise a latte art throwdown in seven steps.
Photo credits: Adrian Huber, Gregory Raymond
Perfect Daily Grind
Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!