Caleb Cha has had an unusual career path. After four years as a financial consultant in his native Korea, he moved to Melbourne with no clear prospects. He decided to complete a training at a local coffee academy and landed a job at Cafenatics—where his boss happened to be the latte art champion of the state of Victoria. Today, Cha has surpassed his mentor, nabbing the World Latte Art Championship title last spring in Gothenburg, Sweden. We caught up with him over email, as soon as he landed back home after another busy week in the life of a champion—posing in front of step and repeats, judging latte art battles, and rubbing elbows with coffee greats like George Howell.
As it turns out, latte art—at least at the competitive level—is serious business. At the Gothenburg championship, six of 36 original contestants qualified for the final round, where they were asked to create two identical free-pour macchiato, two identical free-pour lattes, and two identical designer patterned lattes, all under the watchful eye of a panel of judges.
Contestants submit photographs of their designs ahead of time, and must replicate them as accurately as possible. They are judged on visuals and technique, with scoresheets that include no less than 23 different criteria gauging the position, complexity, and originality of the design, the “visual foam quality,” the contestant’s “confidence and flair,” and the workspace layout, to name a small few.
Cha isn’t entirely sure what differentiated him from the other baristas. “I didn’t pay too much attention to them; I was busy enough taking care of myself,” he jokes, quickly adding that his attempts to communicate with the judges while he worked, detailing each step of his process, must have served him well. His winning patterns included a zebra drinking coffee, an abstract “love triangle” featuring three hearts, and a peacock strutting its stuff. All are executed by free pouring, though some details in the zebra require an etching tool. In the two months leading up to the championship, Cha practiced religiously, making over 12,000 cups in total.
Back home at Cafenatics, he likes to play around with different designs depending on the order. “Each drink has a different amount of froth,” he explains. “I prefer swans for cappuccinos, tulips for lattes and rosettas for flat white coffees.” To come up with new patterns, he says he just tries to shift his point of view: “Think differently, pour differently.”
When they’re not going down someone’s gullet, Cha’s practice cups are thrown down the sink—like sand mandalas, these are short-lived creations. Maybe latte art’s true purpose is to remind us of the impermanence of all things, starting with that ephemeral caffeine high.
Keep track of Caleb Cha’s gorgeous lattes on Instagram.