This is Why It’s OK to Spend $4 on a Cappuccino

Because a foam heart can absolutely make your day.

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My history with latte art is long and circuitous. After giving up coffee a few years ago and switching to green tea, I began drinking “special occasion” cappuccinos. Soon, every weekend was a special occasion, and a few months after that, every day became a good day to indulge in a frothy espresso beverage. My coffee habit had morphed into a $4 a day cappuccino habit, which I could not afford.

Then, I had the brilliant idea to ask for an espresso machine for Christmas. My generous mother did hours of research and settled on a Gaggia Classic—a simple and affordable yet authentic Italian espresso machine. I set it up and watched dozens of YouTube videos (Whole Latte Love is my favorite channel) demonstrating how to operate the machine and make a perfect cappuccino.

After a few days, the drinks started to taste almost right, but they didn’t look anything like the cappuccinos I’d been buying from Cafe Grumpy. And I knew the problem was my foam (even after upgrading my steam wand). It was always either too flat or too frothy, and while I was imitating the pouring I saw on YouTube, I didn’t actually have any idea what I was doing.

“Without a properly pulled shot of espresso and correctly steamed milk, you’ll never be able to create latte art,” explains Britta Wolfrum, Director of Education at Irving Farm. I met Britta when I enrolled in an Irving Farm barista class. (Yes, such a thing exists. And yes, it’s kind of ridiculous to enroll in a class to create latte art for yourself, but I was sharing my attempts on Instagram, and I really wanted to improve.)

We spent the first half of class talking about milk. We learned about milk fats, and temperature, and the difference between a cappuccino and a latte. Finally, it was time to pour. If you’re an aspiring home barista like me, here are the steps to creating a design in your beverage:

1. Tilt your cup (containing a shot of espresso, of course) to a 45 degree angle, and slowly pour your milk from about three inches above the drink’s surface directly into the center. Location is key. 2. As the cup fills, move the pitcher closer to the cup and pour faster. The foam will begin to form a dot in the center.   3. Level out the cup, and keep pouring until it’s almost full. Then, pull the pitcher across the cup to create the curve and point of the heart.

Sounds easy, right? Well… I poured (and dumped) about half a dozen sloppy looking drinks that day, and my home cappuccinos aren’t much better either. Britta assured me it took her three months of practice, pouring hundreds of drinks in a coffee shop to get good. “People get so frustrated because latte art looks so easy,” she says. “But it’s not.”

Now, I try to focus on flavor instead of art. If I happen to pour something that looks decent, I still post it (@dawnspinnerdavis if you want to see my mediocre handiwork), but chances are it resembles a walrus or an apple—not a heart. And when I do buy a $4 cappuccino, I’m much more appreciative of the talent required to make my drink look as great as it tastes.