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Dexter Zeiler at Evanston Pour trains to keep the barista craft he loves alive. Credit: Submitted

Dexter Zeiler creates consumable art. Specifically, espresso-based art that we can drink, such as a great latte, cappuccino or cortado.

Zeiler is a full-time barista and barista trainer at Evanston Pour, which opened earlier this year at 528 Dempster St. He also makes coffee at home and when his family goes camping. He has trained his wife and daughter in the fine points of creating a great cup of coffee.

He pays homage to all the members of the supply chain that bring coffee to our lips. As the barista, he is the last link in the chain before it is enjoyed by the consumer. He thinks of the family that grows and harvests the beans, the importer of the beans and the roaster. He knows if he messes up, then all their effort and expertise that came before is lost.

Another artful cup of latte. Credit: Jean Cunningham

If you think of art in conjunction with coffee, you likely think of that clever design in the microfoam on top of your latte. But for Zeiler, the more important art is in the creation of a perfect taste. 

When in a coffee shop, you might notice a barista pushing buttons on the espresso machine and pouring liquids, but true coffee artists go way beyond pushing buttons. They learn and appreciate the significance of how each of the elements in a drink are meant to interact together.

While you will appreciate a cute design on top, no design makes up for poor-tasting coffee. The art is when the taste and the design are both great and your coffee shop experience comes to life.

To create a great espresso-based drink, Zeiler and his co-workers at Evanston Pour first need an espresso machine with nine bars of consistent pressure so it will correctly extract the espresso and release the crema. (“Nine bars” means about nine times the typical atmospheric pressure at sea level, and “crema” isn’t cream – it’s the word for the essence released from the ground coffee under pressure.)

Cortado, which is equal parts espresso and steamed milk. Credit: Submitted

Also, a pitcher with a pointed snout is critical for latte art. If espresso is the paper and milk the paint, then the spout is the pen. Finally, a properly sized and shaped porcelain cup with a small base and an open mouth is important. This type of cup is often called a “tulip cup” because it’s shaped like the flower.

Tulip cup, so-called because it is shaped like a flower. Credit: Jean Cunningham

The ingredients that go into the coffee need to include a coffee bean with a sweet body at the correct freshness point. If the bean is too young or too old, the oils will not process to an optimal taste.

Zeiler uses high-quality filtered water when pulling shots of espresso to avoid random tastes along with an unhomogenized milk – the fatter the better – from happy cows that is sweet and delicious. For customers who want a plant-based milk, he uses Minor Figures oat milk which is carbon neutral and comes the closest to a fat milk.

While many ask for a sweetener like sugar or simple syrup, he recommends trying it first without any additions because when made with properly steamed quality milk, the drink is naturally sweet. Of course, sweeteners are available when desired.

The process to make a drink is always completed one cup at a time. First, Zeiler pulls a quality shot of espresso and directs it to the bottom of a deep tulip cup. Next, he textures (aerates to the desired froth level) and heats the milk. He then pours the milk into the middle of the crema, which pushes the crema up the side of the cup, leaving the milk in the middle. At this point, Zeiler is ready to create the design on top for which espresso drinks are famous. 

One approach is to draw a heart with the milk or a series of stacked hearts, which creates a tulip design. Another approach is to draw a rosette that looks like a leaf and then developed further into a swan. While some baristas add more marks using a toothpick or additional tools, Zeiler feels this is fun but can poorly impact the time-sensitive beverage. 

As a coffee artist, Zeiler loves to see a patron have a first or best experience with coffee prepared with passion and desire. He said “I serve a beautiful bean water, but we connect as humans through it. Please come in and talk with me at Evanston Pour.” And if you order a macchiato, he will make one for you and one for him and drink the shot bottoms-up with you!

Visit Evanston Pour at www.evanstonpour.com or on Instagram at @evanston_pour.

Jean Cunningham

Jean Cunningham retired from the business world and is now enjoying the next phase, including writing about local artists to increase awareness of Evanston’s amazing art community.

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