Article by Michael Butterworth
Photos by Joanna Miller
For one night, Bowling Green, Ky., was the coffee capital of the South as over 34 baristas from across the region descended upon Spencer’s Coffee for the 2nd annual Tennessee vs. Kentucky Latte Art Throwdown on November 7. In addition to being home to the National Corvette Museum, Bowling Green is situated just off I-65 near the state line, making it the perfect place for a caffeine-fed feud of Hatfield and McCoy proportions. The event raised over $500 for The Center for Courageous Kids (CCK), a non-profit medical camping facility for children with life threatening diseases and serious disabilities. All of this was made possible through the generous support of Baratza, Barista Magazine, Mistobox, Prima Coffee, Visions Espresso, and Sunergos Coffee.
The competition featured baristas from many of the region’s best shops, such as Argo Sons, Barista Parlor, Crema, High Brow Brew, Quills Coffee, Sunergos Coffee, Vint Coffee and the hosts, Spencer’s. In typical Thursday Night Throwdown fashion, each competitor in the the head-to-head tournament was given one pour per round which was judged on contrast, balance, and aesthetic beauty. Matthew Huested, co-owner of Sunergos, Carter Quinn, lead educator at High Brow, and Stephanie Oliver, former manager of Spencer’s, served as judges.
Typically, latte art throwdowns have a winner-take-all cash buy-in, but with all of the money going to charity, the sponsors provided some incredible prizes to incentivize the competition. The winner received a Baratza Encore, second place took home a Kalita Wave and Pelican kettle (which caught the eye of many a brewologist at the affair), and third place collected a Prima Tamp. In addition, all of the top three got a $50 Mistobox credit, a powder-coated Rattleware pitcher, and a Barista Magazine subscription. Although the coffee communities in Nashville, Louisville, and Bowling Green have a sense of affection for each other, with such high stakes, the competition was cutthroat. A few pours in particular were close enough to elicit gasps from the crowd and concerned looks from the judges. No submission was wasted, however, as audience members could purchase each latte with a two-dollar donation to CCK.
In 2012 the Volunteer State took home the grand prize, but 2013 saw an all-Louisville final four featuring Kenny Smith of Sunergos, Jay Haynes of Vint, Houston Miller of Quills, and Darren Jennings, a full-time oil analyst and a part-time coffee blogger at The Coffee Compass. Kenny poured one of his best pours of the evening against Jay to advance to the final, while Darren’s winged heart narrowly edged Houston’s similar design, which had a slight flaw in the base layer. Houston, however, secured third place for the second year in a row with a stunning tulip topped with a triple-wrapped heart- an incredibly difficult pour only a handful of baristas in the country can pull off. At only 20 years old, we expect a lot from this barista in the future.
The crowd was buzzing going into the final pour. Kenny and Darren are old friends and former roommates. They previously worked together at three different jobs and were groomsmen in each other’s weddings. In spite of their history, or maybe because of it, both were motivated to win it all. Before the throw down even had started Darren told the crowd, “I just want to beat Kenny.” All is fair in love and latte art.
Both poured the designs they had been working all night, but with slight imperfections. From the perspective of an audience member, the decision could have gone either way. The judge’s prolonged deliberation only heightened the sense of expectation.
“Kenny and Darren have been friends since they worked at a movie theater together when they were 15,” Huested told the packed house before announcing the winner. “We all chose Darren’s for aesthetic beauty, but Kenny wins on contrast and balance.” Kenny already was the South’s most decorated latte artist, having won the the 2013 SCAA Latte Art Exhibition and placed three times at Coffee Fest’s Latte Art World Championship Open.
Latte art wasn’t the only feature of the evening. Sunergos, Crema, and Argo Sons teamed up to provided a free brew bar for attenders. I was fortunate enough to try Argo Son’s Yemen Haraaz, a wildly complex natural process, and Crema’s Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Kochere, which confirmed for me they are one of America’s best roasters still flying under the radar.
It may have been the free pints of Hinterland Luna Coffee Stout, but everyone at the Tennessee vs. Kentucky Latte Art Throwdown certainly seemed to have a good time. Justin Shepherd, who owns Spencer’s and coordinated the event, commented, “A 36-participant latte art throwdown in southern Kentucky? That in and of itself is pretty awesome.” One thing is for sure: Tennessee better bring their A-game next year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Butterworth is a barista at Quills Coffee in Louisville, Ky., and an editor at www.thecoffeecompass.com. When he’s not brewing or blogging he enjoys cycling, reading, and spending time with his wife, Julie.