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If you treat yourself to a latte at The Den, the cozy cafe tucked in the lower level of Politics and Prose in Chevy Chase, you’ll probably get something worthy of appreciation, even if it’s just until you take your first sip. The creation probably meant something to your barista too—the person who pulled your shots of espresso with precision, steamed your milk with care, and poured it with as much control as they could manage.
Their pour likely resulted in a design, maybe a rosetta, a tulip, or maybe just a simple heart. Hopefully, it made you smile. But it probably didn’t win them anything more than loose change as a tip. At a Thursday Night Throwdown, the monthly latte art competition hosted by grassroots organization DMV Coffee, D.C. area baristas can win upward of $200 for their latte art.
Thursday Night Throwdowns—TNTs for short—happen on the second Thursday of every month at independently owned specialty coffee shops in the D.C. area. The host coffee shop closes in the early evening, and competitors and spectators start trickling in around 7 p.m. As people hang out and drink, brave baristas—up to 48 at a time—approach the event’s organizers and pay the $5 entry fee to join the competition. Then organizers randomly select names and place them into a bracket.
“First pour” starts sometime around 9 p.m. Two baristas compete at a time and present their drinks anonymously to a panel of three judges who each pick their favorite. The barista with the most votes wins the round and advances. At the end of the competition, the winner gets to take home the pool of entry fees collected at the beginning of the night, and the occasional gift provided by coffee shops or other partners.
Latte art competitions have been a tradition in coffee communities across the country for more than a decade, according to Adam JacksonBey, events committee chair of DMV Coffee. The organization was founded by a couple of local baristas in 2008, and after observing TNTs at Octane Coffee in Atlanta, they decided to host their own in October that year.
Although it’s hard to say for sure, because latte throwdown tradition largely relies on oral history, JacksonBey believes DMV Coffee has the longest running monthly TNTs in America. “We haven’t missed a monthly TNT in six years,” he says, noting that the last one they missed—April 2013—was only because the venue fell through at the last minute. On average, JacksonBey says, a TNT fills a venue to about three-quarters of its capacity.
Why are D.C. throwdowns so successful? “You could literally ask 60 people and get 60 different answers, but my gut says community,” JacksonBey says. “D.C. has the best coffee scene in the country, and I’ll stand on that.”
According to the majority of DMV Coffee board members—seven former and current baristas residing in the area—D.C.’s barista scene is friendly, queer, and really, really into astrology. The city’s coffee scene is dominated by Tauruses and Scorpios, says JacksonBey.
“One thing that defines the D.C. coffee community is that it’s not all white, it’s not all male, it’s not all straight, and it’s not pretentious,” says Carolyn Weinstein, a former barista on the board. “The last conversation I had with these guys was about 7-Eleven versus Dunkin’ Donutscoffee. I think 7-Eleven won.”
When Aviane Herbst moved to the D.C. area from Franklin County, Virginia, she didn’t know anyone living here. “I was definitely missing that sense of community. I found that DMV Coffee provided that for me,” she says. “My introduction to coffee was in rural southern Virginia, and honestly it was a big gay coffeeshop and it was amazing, and I have not been disappointed coming to this city.” Herbst now works at Swing’s Coffee in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood—a job she got through networking at a TNT—and serves on the DMV Coffee board.
What stuck out most to Kenia Euceda Canales when she started attending TNTs when she was 18 years old was how accepting everyone was. “There’s always a welcoming face if you’re at a TNT, there’s always somebody willing to greet you and talk to you,” she says. Now 22, Euceda Canales is the “baby” of DMV Coffee. She’s also the head barista at The Den.
Mike Balderrama, board member and regional educator for Counter Culture Coffee, attributes the camaraderie to the nature of the profession. There’s even a DMV Coffee “Code of Conduct,” which was published in January 2018. “We work in the business of hospitality,” he says. “If we’re not that to each other, then what are we even doing?”
Damian “Daps” Salisbury has been working in coffee for over eight years, and has been on the DMV Coffee board since 2012. They’re the regional retail trainer and quality assurance manager at La Colombe Coffee Roasters, and the “resident shot-puller” at TNTs—meaning they pull the espresso shots for competitors.
Throughout their coffee career, Salisbury has attended a number of TNTs in other cities, and has been shocked by how large the prizes can be—and how competitive this can make participants.
“People get so edgy and pumped up in a way that we don’t want to be about,” they say. “We don’t want to be that level of competitiveness and animosity. In a competition where there’s more at stake, it just doesn’t feel like it fosters the same kind of community where it’s like, we’re here to have fun.”
In some cities, Salisbury says, the judging process can get really intense, which DMV Coffee tries to avoid by having no barriers to becoming a judge. The winner of a given TNT is invited to judge the next one, and whichever coffee shop is hosting can select two more for a total of three judges. These people can be trained baristas, regulars, or even a child.
“My favorite judge ever was Grace, who’s the 8-year-old daughter of a local coffee shop owner,” Salisbury says. “Not only was she more decisive and focused than any adult judge I’ve ever seen—more so probably because she’s not under the influence of alcohol—but she was just about it. You don’t have to be from coffee, literally you could be anybody and we could teach you to judge latte art.”
DMV Coffee might be more relaxed than other coffee communities, but they’re making a name for themselves nationally. Last summer, they hosted preliminaries for the annual U.S. Coffee Championships, which brought coffee professionals from across the country to D.C. The group has also started hosting coffee socials and happy hours for local baristas.
But the TNTs remain the group’s core project—and a sacred community event they look forward to every month. “There’s some people I get to see only every month or two,” Salisbury says. “And these are people who are family to me.”
Today, the members of DMV Coffee rarely compete in TNTs—they “want to pass along that ability to win to younger crews, a younger generation,” according to Salisbury—but they all still love pouring. JacksonBey likes pouring tulips, while Euceda Canales calls rosettas the “king of latte art.” Balderrama thinks hearts are elegant and under-appreciated, and Weinstein recently poured a snake into a matcha latte.
Despite these differences, they can all agree on one thing. As Euceda puts it: “Fuck swans.”