Tahoe-Truckee’s baristas and local coffee hot spots dedicated to serving up tasty, artistic cups of Joe

Kayla Anderson
Special to the Bonanza
Paul Valdez at I.V. Coffee Lab can create bears pretty quickly with the "stick and poke" method.
Photo: Kayla Anderson |

I order a blackberry white mocha from the I.V. Coffee Lab in Incline Village on a snowy afternoon, and when I receive it, a smiling snowman is looking up at me appropriate for the day. It’s so pretty that I hesitate to take a sip and ruin the incredible design. I snap a photo of it before diving into the delicious drink.

No matter the time of year, ask any Lake Tahoe barista who serves you a drink with an animal, smiley face, rosetta, fern or heart shining up from the froth, and he or she will most likely be pleased that you noticed.

Nowadays, a whole underground culture of coffee art is sprouting up everywhere. To celebrate Tahoe-Truckee’s baristas and local coffee hot spots, here are some places dedicated to serving up tasty, artistic cups of Joe:

A Cup of Cherries, South Lake Tahoe (across from Heidi’s)

A Mexican mocha comes out with a beautiful fern leaf in the froth, but unfortunately, it dissipates quickly.

Owner Maria Proctor — whose specialty is the polar bear — has only been doing coffee art for a few months as of this past winter, but is always trying to expand her breadth of designs.

And the customers definitely notice.

“Playing with coffee and milk in a simple latte is fun because you can do a lot with it,” Proctor said.

“I mainly make leaves, hearts, smiley faces, but I just learned how to do a polar bear,” she said as she showed a photo of it on the Cup of Cherries Instagram account.

A simple bear takes her a couple minutes to make and requires a lot of froth.

“A lot of customers come in asking for the 3D bear,” she added.

Proctor said she has more time to perfect her art during the week when business is slow, but most of her special requests come from customers on the weekends.

“I love seeing the milk come out all silky. Once you perfect the milk, then the art comes natural. But our No. 1 goal is to serve the perfect cup of coffee,” she shared.

“A lot of people draw into the milk, but doing it with froth is good too. When I started doing it, I just decided to keep working on it because I love it and it makes the customers happy.

When you get a coffee like that, you know it’s going to be good. It’s a never-ending learning experience.”

She said it’s a bit harder to work with almond, coconut or soy milk, so if you want a coffee with good art on top, then you want to order it with whole milk.

“Some people try to order nonfat cappuccinos (which is hard for coffee art), but we try our best,” Proctor said. “I tell the other baristas that when it comes to coffee art, ‘Do your best, but don’t burn the milk.’”

Revive Coffee & Wine, South Lake Tahoe (in the building next to Sprouts)

This fairly new coffee shop is proud to serve locally sourced coffee that’s handcrafted with love and coffee art.

Recently hosting a latte art competition with about 30 baristas from Sacramento to Reno, Nev., Revive has made a name for itself in the year it’s been open.

Revive Barista Jenna Brackett says she’s only been doing coffee art for a couple of months, but enjoys creating tulips for her customers.

Brackett noted that there are three baristas who specialize in coffee art, mainly creating basic ferns, tulips and rosettas. She said she likes when Revive hosts contests because her and the other baristas learn a lot about what other coffee shops do.

“It takes a lot of practice and time but once you get it, it’s easy. Revive doesn’t require employees to learn it but we all like to do it for the customers,” she said.

Revive Coffee & Wine may be hosting another latte art competition soon; stay up to date at

I.V. Coffee Lab, Incline Village (on Highway 28 in the building next to 7-11)

“My main thing is that the coffee comes out hot. Time is not your friend when it comes to coffee, and if you take too much time on the designs, then the coffee gets cold,” said I.V. Coffee Lab Owner Matt Thralls.

No one knows that better than Paul Valdez, a 15-year barista veteran working at I.V. Coffee Lab who even competed in a latte art competition in Italy in 2000.

“After seeing how the beans are picked, shipped and roasted (especially from Guatemala), and then it gets down to me with the chance to mess it all up in one cup? It’s really important to do it right,” Valdez said.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on oneself, but it conveys the importance Valdez feels about his job.

“Latte art is great if you have a barista that cares about all of the variables like temperature, equipment and customer service,” he said.

With his many years of experience, Valdez specializes in free pours as well as sketches and can create everything from tulips and ferns to bears and elephants.

“The thing with latte art is it is all about the steam and milk. Milk is all fats and proteins that you need to be able to separate out into a microfilm,” Valdez said.

He then hands me a mocha with a perfect bear sketched into the foam that even draws the attention of other customers.

“My favorite is the snowman; it usually puts smiles on everybody’s faces — kids, adults, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

Valdez thinks that rosettas and tulips are the hardest to imprint into coffee foam because of the symmetry needed through the free pour method, adding that in coffee art competitions, “the more free pour you do the more points you’re going to get.”

Of course, not all coffee drinks are in need of art, and one great example of that is how a cappuccino is really supposed to be served.

“Some people get bummed when they don’t get latte art in their cappuccino, but cappuccinos are named after the Capuchin friars, and they aren’t supposed to have art in them. They are supposed to look like the tops of their heads,” Valdez said.

Capuchin monks have bald heads with dark bands around them, he says, and that’s how a cappuccino is supposed to turn out — a dark rim with a frothy white foam middle.

“It’s an experience, it’s everything that will make people come back,” Valdez said. “I love coffee, I take it very seriously. We can make or break somebody’s day.”

Coffeebar, with locations in Truckee, Reno and Squaw Valley

Out of the 70 employees that Coffeebar employs in the Reno-Tahoe area, about 25 are baristas. All baristas train off the floor for about two months before they can make a paying customer a coffee drink.

“Everyone who’s a barista here does coffee art; it’s part of our training,” said Jon French, Coffeebar’s Director of Coffee.

Baristas-in-training work on their skills and perfect their latte art in the training center in Historic Downtown Truckee before ever hitting the floor. Baristas have to prove that they can make four cappuccinos in four minutes that are identical in temperature, flavor, contrast and symmetry.

Two people from the Reno Coffeebar even recently won the SPLAT (Sacramento Public Latte Art Tournament). One employee who has been with the company for six years specializes in dragons and phoenixes.

French explains that it’s more difficult to free pour a symbol rather than do the “stick and poke,” which is just drawing into the foam. A free pour is just a long, continuous pour that is a lot easier to mess up.

French said Coffebar employees’ dedication to coffee art comes from owner Greg Buchheister.

“It requires a lot of discipline; it doesn’t come easy because it’s all about texture, spacing and timing. Greg always encouraged it,” French said.

He says that baristas don’t have a lot to progress in this line of work, so perfecting their latte art is a good channel to pursue.

“If people thought it was going to taste good, and then it comes out looking good, then it just might taste even better,” French said.

In Coffeebar’s process, baristas respond to the milk and then pour based on how it comes out. The maximum amount of time by when the milk is steamed to when it goes in the cup is no longer than 15 seconds before the drink starts to cool and the latte art design starts to dissipate.

“Heat is the staple of high volume, efficient coffee, and you have to get the timing and the spacing right in a free pour,” he said.

Since a rosetta is the fastest pour and can be done as quick as pouring the milk in a cup, French encourages Coffeebar baristas to just concentrate on that when it’s busy: “Prioritize efficiency and good presentations.”

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