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Latte Art with Nicely Abel Alameda

Inside the world of latte art with one of the coffee community’s nicest baristas

by Julie Wolfson
on 08 May 2013
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A man who lives up to his nickname, Nicely Abel Alameda has dedicated himself to his career in coffee. So dedicated, in fact, that he sports coffee logo tattoos commemorating the three companies he has worked for. While working at Espresso Vivace in Seattle, Nicely’s competition-level latte art skills caught the attention of barista champion Kyle Glanville, resulting in Nicely heading south to Los Angeles to be part of the team at Intelligentsia Venice. Nicely also worked tirelessly to help launch Handsome Coffee Roasters and now heads up the coffee program at The Hart and the Hunter at the Palihotel on Melrose in Los Angeles. During a latte art demonstration Nicely talked about the history of his favorite sport, the nature of competition, and his philosophy on why milk matters.

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How popular has latte art become?

To give you some perspective, five years ago, a throwdown in Los Angeles would have consisted of Intelligentsia Silver Lake and one or two other people from other places. As of just a couple weeks ago, at the throwdown at Jones Coffee in Pasadena, there were easily three dozen other places represented...all caring about the latte art that brings us all together. Latte art has become a good way for the community of professionals to get together, and for customers to see and realize that maybe we are taking this more seriously because they are paying so much attention to this final part of the beverage to make it beautiful.

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With all of the types of coffee competitions from the Brewer’s Cup, the Barista competition, and Latte Art World Championship, how do the different competitions bring attention to the coffee community?

I have always thought that barista competitions were a good thing because it brings some focus to what everyday baristas are doing. But oftentimes what a competition barista has to do versus what an everyday barista has to do are very different things. In order to be a very good competition barista you almost have to devote much of your time into perfecting your run-throughs back to back to back. Latte art is one of those things you can do almost practically. Every drink that I am making is an opportunity to practice. Oftentimes in everyday service I say that my best pours are happening while I am working. The competitions show this is how hard people are working to get this good, in order to be able to make you your everyday coffee that well.

How many latte art competitions have you been in?

Not counting throwdowns—which is a slightly different situation—I have been in eight latte art competitions. I have places in five of the eight and I have won it three times.

Can you explain what a throwdown is?

A throwdown is a much more relaxed evening where a café opens up their doors and invites people from all over the community to come on in and go head-to-head. There is usually a little bit of a buy in, like five dollars. Then whoever wins takes the money home. From what I understand, Ben Helfen and Melissa Muckerman got throwdowns going in Atlanta. Then there has been a whole realm of in-house latte art competitions spawned from this. Now a circuit has popped up called Thursday Night Throwdowns (TNTs). We get together, pour some drinks, make fun of each other, heckle each other a little bit and drink some beer. It represents a great bonding opportunity for the community.

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What are the steps to pouring latte art?

For latte art, you need a good shot of espresso in order to be able to utilize the best of the color that provides all of your contrast. Then you have to pair that with very good milk texture. Here at The Hart and the Hunter we serve delicious organic whole milk. Whole milk is always the best, it provides the best amount of fat content to work with.

What is the trick to steaming the milk to the right consistency?

You have to introduce a certain amount of air. That amount of air usually sounds like a kiss to me. You are utilizing air to spin the proteins in the milk into this layer of foam. So you have to mitigate how much air you are allowing to get into the drink itself.

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Why do baristas whack the metal milk pitcher on the counter?

No matter how carefully we steam the milk, there still ends up being some level of bubbles in there. So we tap to pop them. Tapping the pitcher actually ends up sending vibrations through the milk and allows for those bubbles to pop so that the milk is that much smoother. To create the design, I pierce the espresso and lift the color of the espresso as my contrast. For a heart, you stay right in the center the whole time as you wiggle and level the cup.

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How did you get the nickname Nicely?

My senior year in high school I played a character named Nicely Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls and I was voted most courteous for the third year in a row. My best friends said, "That’s it. That’s your nickname, you’re Nicely." So it stuck. It does give me something to live up to.

Stop by The Hart & the Hunter for a free-pour work of art from Nicely and check out the slideshow for more pictures. Images by Bonnie Tsang.

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