When an artist sits down to create a masterpiece, they have to first choose a medium. For Ansel Adams it was the camera, for Da Vinci it was often oil paint, and for Michelangelo, marble. But for Arnon Thitiprasert, 26, of Doppio Ristretto, his chosen medium is milk. His canvas? Lattes. And while his work may never appear in a museum, it has one thing the statue of David doesn’t. It’s drinkable.
How exactly does one become a latte artist? Believe it or not, in Arnon’s case, it started with an extreme dislike for the bitter beverage we call coffee. This all changed when he moved to Australia in 2007 to learn English and got his first job at a coffee shop. One of his co-workers, Jack Hanna, just happened to be a World Latte Art Champion, thus beginning Arnon’s journey into the world of latte art. He later opened up his own cafe in Australia and honed his barista skills by working with the No. 3 World Barista Champion. According to Arnon, being a true barista takes lots of time and education. Not unlike a sommelier in the wine world, a barista should be an expert on the entire process of coffee, from its start as a green bean on a stalk, to its roasting and grinding, and eventually to its imminent culmination into a dark and delicious shot of espresso. Thanks to meeting the right people, Arnon was able to acquire both the barista skills and the latte art skills to become an expert in the coffee trade.
In 2011, Arnon put his skills to the test in the World Latte Art Championships. The competition is simple. 36 competitors, 8 minutes, 6 cups, 3 designs. Each design must be done identically in two different cups. The rules of the competition are strict. For example, all competitors are required to use standard issue cups to ensure an even playing field. Last year, however, two of the participants were able to use their own cups due to a staff member mistakenly telling them it was okay. One of them became the champion. It doesn’t seem fair, but hey, you know what they say. All is fair in coffee and war…er, something like that. Although he didn’t win, Arnon made it to the final 6…as a rookie. When asked about the contest, Arnon says, “Someone like me wasn’t supposed to end up in competitions. I probably only perform at about 60% of my ability. I get too nervous. When you’re in a competition, there are no second chances.” The judges award points based on difficulty, creativity and overall barista skills, such as cleaning the steam wand after steaming. (After all, nobody wants a dirty wand.) No, he didn’t win, but No. 6 in the world is not a bad title to have either. And to think five years ago he didn’t even like coffee.
Although the competitions are fun, Arnon prefers to pour in front of his customers. He says, “Everyday I find a new pattern. That’s the fun part of it. Any mistake can make something new. Every single cup is different.” With the hope of teaching Thai people to start enjoying coffee without ice, he decided to open up shop in Chiang Mai, where the weather is cooler and more conducive to drinking hot beverages. With the multitude of coffee shops in Chiang Mai, being able to make your business stand out is important. Yes, he can make a dragon magically appear on top of your morning cappuccino, but that’s not the only thing that Arnon hopes will keep his customers coming back. He wants it to be about the coffee. While the coffee culture in Thailand is alive and well, the purchase of a drink often has surprisingly very little to do with the actual coffee. In many cases, a simple cardboard cup of coffee is seen as a status symbol. That is, as long as it’s the right cardboard cup of coffee, such as one that is adorned with an (actually quite awkward looking) naked, green mermaid. Competing with these big international coffee conglomerates is something all independent coffee shop owners have to deal with. Arnon says, “You should get what you pay for, but you’re not. With the big companies, the farmers are paid almost nothing for their beans, and then the customer is charged 10 – 20 times that amount. And they are really low quality beans. It’s the status they’re paying for, not the coffee.”
His hope is that his latte art skills will catch people’s attention and lure them in so they can learn to appreciate a high quality cup of hot coffee, just as he did. The latte art? That’s just the cherry on top. (Or the panda…) And remember to bring your camera. That cup of coffee you just ordered comes with a complimentary artistic masterpiece.