The devil is in the detail

by Alessandro Zengiaro

Turin gets hot in the summer. Really hot.

The city is overlooked by the Alps to the west and north, and it sits at the eastern edge of the Susa Valley that runs all the way from the French border to the outskirts of the city.

The result? There’s no wind. None. You’d think a breeze would be pushed down the valley, towards and through the city streets. It never happens.

It means the heat is stifling. It just doesn’t lift as the air is so still. And it’s one of the reasons why the city is so polluted. It’s often cloaked in smog.

But it’s home.

I always knew I wanted to stay for my studies, I wanted to go to the University of Turin. What I couldn’t have known was how little I’d enjoy the Business Management degree I enrolled on.

While I was studying, I got a role in finance for a business in the city so I’d have some money coming in. And I’m glad I did - I quit my studies after three years. It really wasn't for me.

I kept the job for another two years but part of me could never come to terms with the potential of spending my working life sat behind a desk, staring at a screen.

It was 2014, I was 24.

Some friends, my mother and her partner at the time had a plan to open a coffee and tobacco shop. They asked if I wanted in and I thought I’d give it a shot, why not? 

We met with a local roastery who offered commodity coffee but who’s owner had an interest in specialty coffee. He was SCA-qualified and keen to help progress the very small specialty scene in Turin. With him, we did an intensive week-long training course, eight hours every day.

He showed us a love and respect for coffee that I hadn’t seen before. By the end of it, we were hooked. We wanted to open a shop serving high-quality specialty coffee.

But remember, this is Italy. The majority of Italians drink espresso and espresso only. The coffee is always commodity-grade, to ensure the drink always costs one Euro. No more, no less. So, while we had plans for a specialty-grade offering, we had to have the one-Euro espresso on the menu.

It didn’t take us long to find a coffee shop next door to a tobacco shop. We took over and operated them separately for a year. Then we knocked the walls through, refitted the space and began building the business we’d envisioned.

I’ll be honest. It didn’t work. We underestimated how difficult it would be to promote specialty coffee to the Torinese. Most of our regular customers were happy with their usual espresso and two sugars. So we focused on serving the best commodity-grade coffee we could, while offering specialty filter coffee to the few who were interested.

I was disheartened, but the experience showed me I wanted to put all my energy into specialty coffee. I had found something that excited me and motivated me to learn. As I improved my skills on the coffee machine, in particular steaming and pouring milk, I began to experiment with latte art.

Experimentation turned into obsession and soon I was spending every minute of my free time practicing - pouring rosettas, tulips, swans, hanging hearts. I was chasing perfection. I had the bit between my teeth and was pushing myself harder and harder to master my new obsession.

It paid off.

I steamed my first jug of milk during the week-long training course in 2014 and by November 2016 I was competing in the northern heat of the 2017 Italian Latte Art Championship - the winner qualified for the national final. I won the whole damn thing.

The final was in the following January in Rimini, 450 kilometres south-east of Turin on the Adriatic coast. I had eight minutes to present one free pour (a design created with a jug only) and one designer (created with a jug and etching). My free pour was a reverse tulip, and my designer was a lion’s face with a pirate eyepatch and moustache. I finished 10th out of 11 competitors. I was so happy; I was the 10th-best latte artist in Italy.

Back in Turin, I knew my time at Trebi was ending. Man, during training for the competition, I had been working from 5.30am to 7.30pm and then practising on the machine from 8pm to midnight. Then I’d get home, eat, have four hours sleep and head back to the shop. That was my life, seven days a week. I learnt a lot about myself in that period. My limits, how my mind works, how much my body can take.

It was summer 2017 and I was tired. I was tired but invigorated by what I’d achieved in Rimini. I wanted less hours working and more time practicing for the next competition. I poured my last coffee at Trebi and I joined Orso.

Orso was famous. It was the jewel in Turin’s specialty coffee crown. Students and tourists queued along the pavement to choose from six single origin filter coffees, three espresso blends, Moka, Aeropress, V60, syphon. It offered coffee and a few pastries, nothing else.

It was very similar to the best coffee shops in London at the time in that sense - focusing purely on a super high-quality coffee offering. There weren’t many other similar cafes in Italy, let alone Turin. It was a big step up for me.

Now I had the time and a clearer head to push myself deeper into my practice. But this didn’t mean more hours spent behind the machine, more working harder. It meant working smarter.

I entered the 2018 competition… And didn’t get through the heats. The top two go through and in both rounds I finished third. Was I getting worse? What happened to working smarter? I passed it off as a bad day.

I entered the 2019 competition… And qualified second. I went to Rimini, flew through the semi-final and then finished sixth. I’d beaten my previous best of 10th.

I was happy, sort of. I’d been at Orso for two years and I could feel myself getting distracted with thoughts of ‘what’s next?’

I left Orso for the same reason I left Trebi. I stopped learning. I knew that if I had nothing left to learn at Orso, it was time to leave Turin. I considered Milan. I thought about Amsterdam, Berlin. But there was only one option if I wanted to truly challenge myself again.

I’d visited once before. I’d watched in disbelief as the cars, vans, buses, bicycles catapulted and criss-crossed through the narrow side streets and vast junctions swarmed with wide-eyed tourists. I’d made a promise to myself to never drive a vehicle in London. Turin traffic is bad enough, but London? Forget it.

I remembered that promise, long broken as I peeled the latest parking ticket off the van windscreen, jumped back into the driver’s seat and took the first left back onto Oxford Street.

It was September 2019. After a couple of months working behind the bar at a coffee shop in west London, I’d landed a role in the technical team at Assembly Coffee. This was the biggest learning curve yet. I could master any coffee machine with my eyes shut but I had very little idea of the intricacies of how they function.

I’m curious. I needed to fully understand the mechanics that enabled me to brew coffee. My only concern was that my latte art skills would suffer. At Orso I was pouring 100 cups of coffee a day, five days a week. And now I wasn’t making coffee at all. I was spending all my time either behind the wheel or deep inside a machine.

I was open with Assembly from my first interview - I said that I would need time and space to continue practising as I had my eyes on the UK Latte Art Championship. And I’m so grateful that they listened and understood.

Then in March 2020, Covid hit. I got furloughed, that year’s competition was cancelled.

In terms of planning, nothing changed. SCA rules mean that to enter any competition, you must have lived in the host country for at least two years beforehand. So I couldn’t have entered in 2020 anyway. I had been aiming for 2021 anyway.

During the first two months of lockdown, I was pouring patterns at home for two or three hours a day. Thankfully I came back to work quickly, I was back in the van by May. I would spend an hour or two practising on the machine at our roastery in Brixton once I’d clocked off for the day. This was my routine for a year. Repeating, reworking, refining.

Due to Covid, the semi-final and final of the 2021 competition were held on consecutive days at Café Culture, September 2nd-3rd. There were no heats. Twenty competitors went straight into the semi-final and for that round we had to present three designs - two free pours and one macchiato.

I had chosen my designs around six months before the competition. For the free pours, I’d chosen The Rider (to celebrate a colleague at Assembly who is obsessed with motorbikes) and Kobe Bryant (to commemorate the life of my favourite sportsperson), for the macchiato I had The Koala.

If I made it through to the final, I would have to present the two free pours, plus one designer. For my designer piece I’d chosen Superman (my favourite song is ‘Superman’ by Five for Fighting).

You know, the hardest part, by far, is transferring the idea you have in your mind into your cup. Fundamentally you must care about the pattern, it has to mean something to you.

Then you have limitations to consider. One - you have a circle-shaped canvas. That isn’t easy. And two, you have a limited number of elements you can use to create your pattern. You have the tulip, the rosetta and you have dry foam. Yes, this restricts you. But it also pushes your creativity - you have to change your perspective.

And at the same time, you have to be thinking what you could do to add your own unique twist. I added a pirate eyepatch and moustache to my lion in Italy, how was I going to make my mark with my patterns in London?

For Kobe, first I found an image of him I thought would work well within the circular frame. I rapidly realised that I couldn’t have the backboard in the image - its square shape didn’t complement the frame. I tried pouring angel wings on his back as their shape followed the curvature of the cup. It worked. There was my twist.

Then I began testing different elements for different parts of his body. A tulip for his torso? He looked like a duck. A rosetta instead? Perfect.

This is the creative process for all free pour and design patterns. I did the same for The Rider and for Superman as I’d done for Kobe. Settle on your idea, transfer it harmonically, test which elements work, add a twist.

Once you’ve got your designs locked in, it’s all about your routine. You need to be able to deliver your presentation with your eyes closed. You need to know what your hands are doing, where you’re standing, what you’re saying for every single second of your performance.

In the few months before the 2021 competition, I was running through my routine, against the stopwatch, from 5.30am until I started work at 8am. Then again for a couple of hours in the evening after I clocked off. But it was the weekend where I really pushed myself. Six, seven, eight hours non-stop on Saturday and again on Sunday, every single weekend.

It’s the only way to create the muscle memory you need to be able to deliver your presentation on autopilot. I need my brain free to manage so many moving parts, there’s no room for it to have to think about what’s next. It just needs to do it.

During the early run-throughs, the routine was taking eleven minutes, forty-five seconds. Well over the allotted ten minutes.

The easiest way to shave time off is by pouring faster. This is why you spend hundreds of hours pouring the designs before you begin practicing your presentation. The more confident you are, the less time you need to pour accurately and cleanly. During my final practice runs, I was hitting ten minutes exactly.

On the morning of the semi-final, though I was nervous, I’d never felt as confident about a competition. I even spilled a cup during my performance - a big mistake - but it didn’t phase me. I knew I would go through to the final. And I did.

I didn’t look at any of the results. I saw a few designs from the other finalists but didn’t really pay much attention. I stayed focused.

I got a solid night’s sleep. I arrived at the venue early - I was first to present. The nerves returned but I stayed calm. Mostly.

I nailed The Rider, I nailed Superman, I nailed Kobe. I didn’t put a foot or a hand wrong. I finished bang on ten minutes.

I went backstage to meet my coach, Thomas. ‘Dude… What happened?’ I’d dropped the ball, literally.

I hadn’t noticed it at the time, but I’d presented my Kobe design without a basketball. I had presented a basketball player without their ball. I was devastated. All the hard work, the dawns and the dusks spent against the stopwatch. All for nothing.

I had poured that design a thousand times, more. Not once had I forgotten the ball. Until now. That’s competition. That’s what it can do to you.

Thomas tried to reassure me that I’d lose a couple of points at the most, and that I was still in with a shot of winning. He managed to calm me, eventually.

Going first meant I’d watched the other finalists present their designs. I thought I had a pretty good chance of finishing third. There were two other competitors who I thought would finish in the top three. Neither of them had made a mistake, so I told myself third would be a solid result.

They announced third place. It wasn’t me. Was I second? That was easier to believe than fourth. Despite my mistake, I knew my performance and designs were better than fourth place.

When they announced second, and it wasn’t me, I knew I’d won. Sure enough, a minute later they announced me as the winner of the UK Latte Art Championship 2021.

And I hadn’t just won; I’d finished well clear out in first place. The dawns and the dusks were worth it. 

The prize? The opportunity to represent the United Kingdom at the World Latte Art Championship in Taiwan, eight weeks later.

So, after a few beers and maybe a whiskey or two, it was back to practise. Winning in London was the culmination of six years of hard work but I needed to get better - there wasn’t long before the World Championship began and I knew the quality of the competitors was going to be a level I’d never competed against before. 

After a week of rest, I’d thrown myself back into training. And then the event was moved to Warsaw and rescheduled to June 2022 - an eight-month delay.

The plan was to set aside the final three months of 2021 to create my designs and then January 2022 through to the event was routine run-throughs only. And I’ve followed that schedule pretty much exactly as I’d planned.

I was happy with the designs I used in London, but the designs I’ve created for the World Championship are better. They are more harmonious, geometrically they are more complex, they all have more elements to them. This is me, pushing myself to my limit. 

Earlier this year, the event was moved for the third time due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, from Warsaw to Milan - 140 kilometres northeast of Turin.

So, for a week or so until yesterday, I was back home. Stopwatch on, zoned in. Repeating, refining, repeating, refining.

In between I dropped into Trebi, had a coffee at Orso. Soaked up the baking sun, caught up with mum.

Today we have the pre-competition briefing at the venue in Milan. Tomorrow is game day. I feel good, I feel confident, I feel excited. I've never been this prepared. 

Whatever happens, I’ve done everything I can and more.

See you on the floor.

Alessandro competes in the preliminary round of the World Latte Art Championship at 11.45am on Thursday 23rd June at the World of Coffee, Milano Convention Centre, Milan

Assembly Coffee will be there, too. Find us at stand 61 in the Roaster's Village.