Every month, 32 baristas by day morph into latte artists by night and prove themselves when it comes to serving up the best frothy work of art to customers.
The throw down is hosted by a different coffee shop. Participants vary from month to month, but there are five or so dedicated Philadelphia coffee shops that send a representative to most competitions.
Chestnut Hill Coffee Co., 8620 Germantown Ave., is one of the dedicated few.
“It’s a social event for us, but also to promote coffee in Philly,” said Kate Swanson, barista and manager of Chestnut Hill Coffee Co. who has competed in several of the competitions. “We’re here to have fun and represent.”
Philly Thursday Night Throwdown — or TNT — is a citywide latte art showdown organized by the average Joes serving up coffee to Philadelphians every morning.
Baristas compete head-to-head in a bracket style competition. The goal is to pour steamed milk into a 10 oz. cup containing a shot of espresso, while making a complex, leafy design. No spoons or tools may be used to help craft the design.
Seth Lester, one of the judges and employees of Spruce Street Espresso, said lattes are judged on four characteristics: symmetry, color contrast, use of space and overall impression of the design.
All baristas throw in $5 to compete, and the winner gets the combined sum — and bragging rights until the next competition.
October’s Spruce Street Espresso TNT, however, was not a typical competition — Philadelphia’s top eight got to compete against fellow baristas in Washington, DC.
Both cities broadcasted live using Justin.tv not only so they can see each other, but so any coffee enthusiast can tune in during the event. Viewership varied through the night, but at one point nine people could see baristas compete in a crowded room full of coffee enthusiasts.
Swanson was among three Chestnut Hill Coffee Co. baristas who packed her shoulder-to-shoulder with about 50 other baristas and coffee enthusiasts in a 250 square-foot room, long after her workday at Chestnut Hill Coffee Co.
Although none of the Chestnut Hill baristas made it past the first round, Swanson said she doesn’t feel the competition is about winning.
“I like having [all] the baristas in town together,” said Swanson. “It’s about the staff, our relationship with the community and just producing a good product.”
Michael Newman, an attendee of October’s TNT, said he came just to see what the event was all about.
“I don’t know much,” he said. “But I know what I like and I respect passion and they have it here.”
Faith Ortiz, co-owner of Spruce Street Espresso, which hosted the event, said Philadelphia’s baristas are a tight-knit group.
“This specialty coffee community is pretty small,” she said. “Even though it’s competitive [and] we like to trash talk, we still all root for each other.”
Swanson also said the coffee community shares camaraderie, especially within Chestnut Hill Coffee Co.
“It’s a little family,” said Swanson. “Sometimes we don’t like each other, we love each other.”