Ryan Miller looked stunned when he was announced as a the winner of May’s Thursday Night Throwdown at Stacks Espresso Bar on Albany’s Broadway. The Kru Coffee owner competed in three rounds of latte art with increasing difficulty, ending with warm, frothed milk being poured with precision into a two ounce demitasse cup. Though he had been working in coffee for years to that point, the crapshoot of a Throwdown is something that can take even the most seasoned barista by surprise.
“In San Francisco, it’s a ritual. You could go to a Throwdown every other week in New York City,” says Ron Greico, co-owner of Stacks Espresso Bar. The origins of the event are fuzzy, but Barista Magazine, among others, point to Coffee Fest, a leading coffee industry trade show, as being the birthplace of the competition during the 2002 Las Vegas show. Latte art — the formation of designs in hot espresso using frothed milk — was a burgeoning harbinger of a barista’s talent and skill at the time, and the ability to create impressive tulips, swans, hearts and freeform patterns is as much a mark of excellence as the taste of each latte. Though latte art was developed in Seattle in the late 1980s and into the 1990s (a precursor to the Starbucks boom), it took another decade before latte art was widespread enough to have an audience and talent pool for a competition.
Thursday Night Throwdowns, popularized on social media using the #TNT hashtag, began in September 2014 in the Capital Region. (Locally, the hashtag is #518TNT.) Stacks’ Lark Street shop hosted the first edition, which crammed dozens of latte art and coffee enthusiasts into the shop, elbowing for a glimpse at the winning cups. The Throwdowns run roughly every six months (on a Thursday), with Stacks having held six competitions and Kru and Superior Merchandise Company in Troy having hosted one each.
“People see latte art, and that is what represents specialty coffee,” says Matthew Loiacono, the director of coffee for Superior Merchandise Company. People outside of the local coffee industry attend these events like fans travel to see their favorite musicians or sports teams, rooting for their favorite baristas, but some also try their hand in competition, too. “It’s for the coffee community and it’s for the people who do not work in the community. It’s for people who are really into latte art,” says Greico.
Perhaps that is why Miller seemed so shocked when he was crowned champion of the May competition. The Throwdown requires a $5 buy-in for each competitor, and no prior experience in coffee service or latte art is required for participation. The competitors are placed in brackets, separated into three rounds: eight ounce lattes, four or five ounce lattes, and a final round of two ounce lattes. As specialty coffee popularizes and home espresso machines become more affordable, a surprise ringer with a home enthusiast in the competition is not uncommon. The lattes are presented blindly to a panel of judges (in the case of local Throwdowns, the panel typically features Capital Region food media personalities, friends of the coffee world, and business owners with ties to the industry), so the appearance of the art is void of prejudice towards professionals or novices.
For those in the industry, the Throwdowns serve as a chance to exchange best practices and industry news, and often act as a training seminar or miniature trade show to display new products and equipment. “Such a great community builder. It keeps skills as sharp as possible,” says Loiacono.
“People don’t realize how invested we really are. We all take is really seriously and show you can make it a career. You can do something in coffee forever,” Greico says.
The Throwdown is still a chance for revelry, despite the continued education. Greico makes a point to keep the atmosphere light and party-like with the inclusion of a DJ, free beer and food, giveaways (both for participants and attendees; the winner typically takes home small sums of cash and new gear provided by Barista Magazine, a sponsor of the Throwdowns) and free coffee for anyone refusing to let lattes go to waste.
Local Throwdowns are usually planned at whim, but Greico predicts he will host another at the Stacks Broadway location in November. Details can be found on the Stacks social media pages.
Deanna Fox is a food and agriculture journalist. www.foxonfood.com @DeannaNFox