Latte artists throw down at Krankies

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Runner-up Noah Zenger and champion Chris Wallace bump fists following Wallace's victory. (photo by Lauren Barber)

It’s the same way every time:

The espresso beans are ground, transferred to the portafilter and tamped. The barista affixed the group head to the machine’s body and heated water cascaded through the metallic filter basket. Chestnut-brown, caffeine-riddled liquid dripped into the shot glass. Meanwhile, steady hands guided a pitcher around the steam wand, introducing air and then steam to the cold milk. On a typical night, this process culminates in a transaction between customer and establishment, but on Sunday evening the ritual played part in a celebration of community.

“Coffee has a really good culture,” said Chris Wallace of Cornelius. “It’s not one shop competing against the other. You can have one shop here and one on the end of the block and everybody gets along fine.”

Krankies Coffee’s bracket-style, latte-art throwdown in Winston-Salem on Sunday evening placed this communal dynamic on full display. Baristas from area coffee shops converged to exhibit their skills in head-to-head competition on the espresso machine behind Krankies’ countertop.

Wallace, the competition’s reigning champion, returned to defend his title for this second iteration of the throwdown. You won’t find him behind the counter of any of your favorite cafés, though; Wallace practices at home.

“I owned a bakery in Cornelius and started doing coffee and fell in love with it,” he said.

Ian Killea — the event’s 29-year-old mastermind from Winston-Salem and lead barista at Krankies — hosted the tournament with frenetic and playful energy, documenting the night’s unfolding while galvanizing audience members and sporting a vibrant, shimmering blazer.

“I’ve been a barista for nearly 10 years and it’s so much fun,” he said afterwards. “When I step out of it, I want to help organize and host a fun event for people who are doing the same job as me to come out and build our community of local baristas. I see it happening all over the nation. [Winston-Salem] is such an in-between small town that it’s hard for it to take off sometimes.”

Earlier this year more than 16 people entered the bracketed competition, but Sunday’s installment featured only eight competitors. Considering diminished turnout, Killea decided to spice things up, daring contestants to show off their craft in increasingly small cups with each round. What began as a latte-pour competition became a cortado, then macchiato-pour showdown in the final round.

“The latte art throwdown has been a thing in the coffee community for at least 15 years,” said Killea. “The most familiar format is a TNT, which is a Thursday Night Throwdown that started at Octane Coffee in Atlanta. They went so far as to have a scoreboard at their café.”

Though humble in comparison, Sunday’s matchup gathered more than 40 community members on a drearily rainy night.

As latte artists submitted their steamed milk and espresso creations to the evening’s three judges, audience members feverishly crowded around the table to find a clear vantage point, snapping photographs with smartphones and whispering their predictions as to which artist would triumph. Other throwdown attendees preferred to hang back and munched on loaded fries from Krankies’ kitchen while Savannah Tuttle held down the bar, preparing libations to an upbeat soundtrack of indie and jazz-laced rock.

Among ubiquitous heart and tulip compositions, a few artists experimented with more imaginative floral designs such as cacti. The spotlight revealed finer details of the craft: pounding the pitcher on the counter to disperse any bubbles and the subtle finesse required to pour milk at just the right height and angle.

“It’s becoming a commonplace thing for building coffee community amongst other people who are interested in the same kind of thing,” Killea said. “[Baristas] do this all day at work and want to show off their skills. It takes time to learn how to do it well so once you do it’s addictive and it’s all you want to do.”

In the final round, Wallace faced Noah Zenger, a current barista at Krankies.

Two of three judges’ hands pointed to the petite and perfectly symmetrical heart Wallace delicately planted in a macchiato glass.

He prevailed once more.

“It was good competition,” said Wallace. “It was exhilarating [and] it’s kind of funny because Noah used to dog-sit for us before he started working for Krankies.”

Chris Wallace mixes a latte at Krankies’ latte art throwdown. (photo by Lauren Barber)