Last month in the coffee capital of Seattle, a soft-spoken Kansas Citian steamed his way to a national title by conjuring a dancer, a phoenix and a seven-tiered tulip in milk foam.
Whatever else Simeon Bricker, 24, does in his life, he will always be the first-ever winner of the National Latte Art Championship.
The art category was added this year to the U.S. Coffee Championships, hosted by Specialty Coffee Association of America, the largest industry trade group for beans, brewing equipment and coffee-related products. Existing contests crown the top brewer (of drip coffee), barista (espresso maker) and taster.
Bricker, who has a bachelor’s in studio art from UMKC, creates artworks more fleeting than sandcastles, as ephemeral as smoke rings.
“You can throw down something spectacular, and it’s gone in 90 seconds,” he said.
After Seattle, Bricker represented the United States in a fairy-tale trip to the world championship in Melbourne, Australia. There, he met other masters of his craft from Hungary, the Netherlands and Japan, whose intricate designs in tiny cups rocked his world as much as watching the tallest waves he’s ever seen crashing the shore at the edge of the Indian Ocean.
He didn’t make the finals, but he got to play with the best.
Inside The Roasterie’s factory cafe, an electric-yellow wedge with a DC-3 on the roof just off Southwest Boulevard, Bricker curves his tall, lean frame over a white ceramic cup cradled in his left hand and swirls the mahogany-colored espresso pooled in the bottom halfway up the sides.
His body is as still as an Olympic platform diver as he tips a thin stream of steaming milk from the spout of a stainless steel pitcher.
The milk pierces the surface of the liquid and disappears below the brown surface without diluting its color.
Bricker lowers his face even closer to the cup, his unblinking eye not 6 inches from the rim, and jiggles the pitcher, laying down a sweeping white line that curls back on itself in ever shorter arcs, like a modernist curvy Christmas tree. Then he drags a thread of foam down through the top, forming a heart at the top of the tree, the finishing touch on the classic design known as a rosetta.
The latte has nearly filled the cup, but Bricker continues adding milk in tiny dots on both sides of the central design, tipping the spout up and down, up and down.
A tension bubble forms at the rim as he pulls the last dribble of milk through the dots and sets the brimming cup on the counter without a drop sliding over the edge.
Bricker’s rosetta is an example of a free pour, a design created using only the stream of the milk as it comes out of the pitcher. Free pours are by far the most common in the U.S. because they balance artistry with the constraints of commerce at busy coffee bars.
Within 30 seconds, Bricker’s rosetta is shot through with tiny bubbles. Another 30 seconds and the foam around the edges begins to darken and gum up like old cotton candy. In a cafe setting, the motion of the customer drinking the latte blends the ingredients together, preventing the Dorian Gray effect.
By the time the first design is decomposing, Bricker is dragging a toothpick through the foam of a second cup, adding intricacy with a technique known as etching.
In addition to a sure hand and creativity, the latte artist must also know the canvas: espresso.
The brew’s color and thickness determine how much contrast and sharpness are possible in a design. So controlling the grind of the coffee and the “pull,” or extraction process, are crucial.
The paint on an espresso canvas is hot milk, so manipulating the steam bar to achieve an even-textured, thick foam is also key.
If the coffee or milk is too thin, no amount of dexterity can save the “pour,” or finished cup.
In the first round in Melbourne, Bricker’s designs were strong, but too-thin espresso and milk caused his lines to feather, sinking his scores and knocking him out of the finals.
Judges also award technical points for consistency (for example, if you bang the filter on the counter for one pour, you should do it for every pour), neatness (no coffee grounds left behind on the counter), and efficiency (dosing the milk so the finished cup is full and no milk is left over).
Roasterie owner Danny O’Neill admits that when the text flashed on his phone saying that Bricker had won the national title, he screamed — in celebration, not shock.
Bricker, who was homeschooled in Pleasant Hill, Mo., took a job at The Roasterie Cafe in Brookside when he started at UMKC. In four years he has worked his way up to barista trainer and quality control manager for roasting at the downtown factory.
“Simeon reminds me of Martin Short,” O’Neill said. “He’s got a quick, easy smile and he’s shy, humble and sweet. He’s eager to teach.” Those qualities, rather than reality-show bravado, turned out to be just the judges’ cup of joe in Seattle.
The three-day competition started with Bricker taking light rail from his airport hotel to the Washington State Expo Center downtown, where he headed straight for the practice room — but not to practice.
He felt ready, having spent two solid weeks fine-tuning designs after closing at the Roasterie, bringing his own coffee and gallon jugs of milk and pulling shot after shot until the milk was gone.
“I wanted to check out the competition,” Bricker said. He knew some of the competitors through Instagram pictures of their designs, but he wanted to place the names with faces.
The atmosphere among the 16 contestants was supportive, not cutthroat, Bricker said. “Nobody wanted anybody to spill their drink. We all wanted to show our best stuff and let the judges decide.”
Bricker sailed through the first two days of preliminary competition and got word he made the group of six finalists who would compete on stage in front of judges. (In the prelims, drinks were submitted to a camera for later judging.)
Bricker, a veteran of countless less-formal contests, doesn’t get nervous on stage, but he gets plenty nervous waiting.
“It’s really funny to watch people prepare to get on stage. Some baristas do shots of whiskey, some twiddling their thumbs, others you don’t even know where they are. I pace,” he said.
Compared to the waiting, laying down beautiful pours while explaining his inspiration to the judges was a breeze.
Bricker’s etched pour, his signature phoenix, had a high creativity quotient, and his free-pour dancer had technical difficulty built in because it requires turning the cup around halfway through the pour. Both pours were clean with crisp lines and good contrast.
For his macchiato pour in a tiny espresso cup, Bricker seized the chance to wow with his communication skills. As he jiggled and dipped his milk pot, Bricker told the judges, “Something very simple can be very beautiful when rendered small. Sometimes we are more amazed looking at something under a microscope than through a telescope.”
The wait from 2 p.m. Saturday, when competition wrapped up, until the winner announcement at 5 p.m. Sunday was excruciating.
“I knew I had done well enough onstage that I might have won. But I also knew everyone else had done well enough that they might have won,” Bricker said.
By the time he climbed the stairs to the podium with the other finalists, he was wound tight. He had mentally prepared for not winning.
The emcee milked the announcement for drama, awarding the places in reverse order and leading off with the contestant’s city before reading the name.
“I kept expecting to hear ‘From Kansas City...’ starting with sixth place. When I didn’t hear it after fifth place, fourth place, third place, I didn’t get excited. I still expected to hear ‘Kansas City’ when they got to second place. When I heard them say ‘Glendale’ (California, home of runner-up Eugene Lee), I knew I had done it.”
Excitement, relief and confusion flooded Bricker’s brain at that instant. He remembers asking himself, “What does this really mean? I still have to go back to pulling shots after all this.” But above all, as the fourth-place finisher, a friend, leaned over and said, “You did it!” and someone handed him a trophy, he kept telling himself, “Don’t freak out.”
He hardly spoke but pumped his fist, hoisted the trophy and tried to comprehend the giant cardboard check representing his paid trip to Australia.
While he was still on stage, his phone rang, then died. A reporter from The Wall Street Journal whisked Bricker into the hallway for an interview and by the time he was back in the auditorium, it was emptying out.
“There were a few people there I knew, but no one from The Roasterie and no one from my family, so it was like being alone with my joy,” Bricker said.
Back at his hotel, he plugged the phone into his computer and a message flashed on his screen: 48 messages, all from different people.
He grabbed a screenshot, then headed to the coffee contest after party at Trinity nightclub in downtown Seattle.
“That was the most fun thing ever,” Bricker said. “I had never been into a club before. You walk in and the lights are flashing and the sound was just outrageously big — it didn’t hurt your ears, it just kind of filled you up,” he said.
Bricker celebrated with a glass of cranberry juice — he doesn’t drink — in the VIP lounge above the dance floor. Then he joined friends on the floor and danced until after the trains quit running.
Looking ahead to next year’s championships, Bricker isn’t anxious about defending his title.
“I really learned a lot from talking with the other competitors and the judges in Melbourne. Next year, whether I am representing the U.S. or someone else is, I know so much more that can help us compete and possibly win at that level.”
Since Bricker doesn’t work the coffee bar at Roasterie cafes anymore, you can’t admire his best-in-show designs in your cup. But by snagging the national title and crashing Kansas City into the elite circle of cities with a true coffee culture, Bricker has probably dialed up the pressure for baristas across the metro to paint pretty pictures in foam.