A moment of silence floated through the coffee-scented air. Bodies dressed in plaid and button-ups hovered around the bar top. Behind, about 200 spectators strained to see over the heads of artfully unkempt hair to catch a glimpse of the two mugs sitting exposed on the counter.
The Thursday Night Throwdown was hosted by Press Coffee + Crepes in Graham — located just 15 minutes from Elon University — on Thursday, Feb. 23, judged competitors’ prowess at pouring milk to create one of five latte art staples — a heart, tulip, rosette, swan or bird.
The sixth face of the die, which was rolled to determine the artist’s challenge, offered total creative freedom — a free pour for a signature move or a totally new creation.
Jessie Hoover of Filament Coffee + Tea in Mebane was named champion. Hoover has been a barista for seven years, and full-time for a year and a half, but this was her first competition.
“I expected to come up against some really awesome latte artists,” she said. “I knew that they were spanning from Greensboro to Wake Forest. I didn’t expect to win at all.”
With a large group crowding into the cafe and bar to watch Hoover and other artists compete, those who could not find standing room or a table in the back formed groups outside the entryway and in the upstairs lounge.
Glen Bounds — usually a tea drinker, but tonight, an attentive coffee spectator — ended up at the throwdown because of the relationship across local coffee shops.
“I was just doing school work at the Blend in Burlington, and they actually closed early,” Bounds said. “They told me about it and I thought, ‘I know people from here and there.’ I did not expect it to be this large.”
The artists were pinned against one another in groups of two, and it was a knockout-style competition until the final four. The final artists then competed for first, second and third place.
The judging board consisted of coffee connoisseurs Caleb Durham, creator of blog “A Traveler’s Guide to Quality Coffee Around the World,” Tyler Hanes from Counter Culture Coffee and Jason Cox, Press owner. The special guest was US 2016 Barista Champion Lem Butler.
Brett DeVries, who owns Press alongside Cox, didn’t know much about coffee despite having had the idea for the shop, which opened last June. When one of the baristas, Caleb Gosnell, suggested hosting a latte art competition, DeVries agreed.
Gosnell has been at Press for three months and took on the project only three weeks into his employment. To set up Press’s Thursday Night Throwdown, he pulled together his coffee connections across the Triad, including Counter Culture Coffee in Durham. He hopes events such as this one will foster a growing coffee culture in Alamance County.
“Quality is coming to the table a lot faster than it was because we only had Starbucks and a couple small places that really only sold drip,” Gosnell said. “Now we push the European coffee atmosphere, which is great. Traditional drinks, and making them how they originated and making them the way they were meant to be. That’s growing a lot in the Triad.”
Elijah Loughran, Press barista, also helped spread the word. In addition to managing social media, Loughran handed out flyers in Raleigh.
“This is an event that will really bring unity to all the shops,” Loughran said. “We’re trying to bring in bigger cities like Raleigh, Durham and Winston-Salem. This is a good meeting spot for everyone.”
Though he was working behind the bar instead of competing, Loughran is no stranger to coffee art. To artists interested in getting started, he recommends buying equipment.
“Go explore some good coffees,” Loughran said. “Just start brewing up some at home.”