Lunar New Year Latte Art Throwdown

by Ben Coleman Updated: February 14, 2024 4 min read
CLICK HERE to subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive promotions and regular updates on everything coffee!

I’ll admit it: Happy Gut Sanctuary seemed like an odd choice of location for a latte art throwdown—they’re primarily a tea shop and kombucha brewery after all. And yet, close to a hundred people packed themselves into their High Falls cafe this Saturday to celebrate the Lunar New Year with an artisan market, some delicious ramen (courtesy of Roc City Ramen), and yes—a latte art throwdown. 

Alas, I arrived too late to be able to order any ramen for myself (much to my dismay). I did get to see a lot of delicious looking bowls, though, and my colleague, Elley, showed up early enough to be able to confirm: I missed out big time. 

Luckily, I wasn’t really there to eat—I was there to experience the thrill of a latte art throwdown for the first time in my life. My imagination was awash with images of Top-Chef-level competitive concentration: sweat beaded on scrunched brows, steady hands moving the pitchers in practiced, deliberate wobbles. 

Having never attended an event such as this, I checked in with Rory Van Grol, owner of Ugly Duck Coffee, who would be one of the evening’s three judges. In addition to being one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met, Rory gave me the lowdown on how a throwdown works. 

Two baristas work simultaneously at a single espresso machine: they each steam milk themselves (shots of espresso are pulled in advance), pour the latte art designs of their choice, then present their cups to a panel of three judges. The judges assess the pours for symmetry, contrast, difficulty of pour, and how much they fill the cup. There’s no discussion; after a short countdown, all three judges point at the cup they believe won. 

Latte Art Judges

But really this is about much more than the competition: “it’s about the camaraderie,” Rory said. “For people in the barista community, this is like their happy hour.” 

Okay, sure. But I was interested in the competition. I asked Rory if there was any particular design he was excited to see as a judge, imagining what sort of complex and intricate pour could possibly impress a coffee shop owner with 10+ years of experience. 

“A perfectly poured heart,” he told me, as if to prove his point. 

Feeling a bit like Harry after Dumbledore told him all he wanted in this world was socks, I gave in. Perhaps Rory didn’t want to set my expectations too high; maybe he wanted me to go into my first latte art throwdown with nothing impacting my perception of the pours. 

I said goodbye and took up a position on the second floor, a perfect vantage point from which to watch the baristas pour the milk into delightful shapes. 

During the first round, I was surprised at the incredible spectrum of actual latte art ability on display. On the one hand, some participants presented cups with absolutely incoherent blobs of foam; others crafted detailed designs with high contrast and near-perfect symmetry. 

What stood out most, however, was the almost complete lack of competitive energy in the room. Regardless of discrepancies in ability or outcomes of judging, the “competing” baristas invariably gave each other hugs, high fives, and even (in one instance) poured their espresso drinks with arms linked.

Kat (owner of Happy Gut Sanctuary) and a barista having a blast.

After the first round or two, I started to see what Rory was talking about. The participants did not seem to be particularly motivated by the chance to win $1,000 in home brewing supplies. 

They were there to catch up with friends from other shops and compare steam pitchers (many brought their own). Nobody who lost their round was bitter, and all of the celebrating done by winners was friendly and inclusive of their “defeated” “opponents.” 

And yet, despite everyone’s extraordinary friendliness and genial, non-competitive attitudes towards the whole thing, this was, in fact, a competition, wasn’t it?

Somebody had to win. 


In the end, my desire for competitive tension was satisfied. 

After three rounds of competition, most of which resulted in unanimous judging decisions, we were left with three finalists: April Ortiz (of Whole Latte Love), Zach Shouse (also of Whole Latte Love), and Anvitha Shoroff of Ugly Duck Coffee. 

The finals, rather than being a head-to-head battle (if you could really even use that word to describe such an amiable interaction), would be a three-way showdown: any latte that did not receive at least one judge vote would be eliminated.  

In the first round of the finals, Zach’s near-complete attempt at a seahorse earned one vote, and Anvitha’s practically perfect stack earned two, placing April in third place to a hearty round of applause from all gathered. 

In the ultimate round, Zach made a valiant effort to pour an impressive and difficult swan with a wrapped layered base, but ultimately was beat out by another near-perfect stack from Anvitha, this time with double hearts on either side. 

(And, in case you’re putting two and two together and thinking she got a leg up because her boss was one of the judges, she didn’t: Rory voted for Zach’s design in both of the final rounds.)

Anvitha's winning pour

Anvitha certainly deserved the win. Her designs stood out throughout the night for being consistently sharp and symmetrical. If you’re looking to get your hands on some contest-winning latte art (and have an all-around amazing cafe experience), pay her a visit at Ugly Duck Coffee. 

For my part, I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more latte art throwdowns to attend—even if I’m not on the clock. In addition to seeing some genuinely impressive latte art, it was great to be a part of such an overtly positive atmosphere. 

Who knows? Maybe next time I’ll even throw down myself.