Mugshot Monday! A look into the coffee culture of the Triangle.

Future UNC grad Kelsey Snell is extremely passionate about the coffee culture that has taken over the Triangle and asked about sharing her experiences as a guest blogger on Durham Foodie. Great idea! So we bring to you the first “Mugshot Monday! A look into the coffee culture of the Triangle.” Please enjoy your coffee break with us every Monday morning as we delve into the local coffee scene and all it has to offer.

Thursday Night Throwdowns

By: Kelsey Snell

The clinks heard from wine glasses being steamed and polished usually means closing time at 3CUPS, a coffee, tea and wine café in Chapel Hill and a Durhamfoodie favorite. Typically, the straightening of artisanal chocolates and marmalades and the purging of the espresso machine’s steam wands announces the arrival of 7 p.m. to any lingering guest dragging out their last sip of Cab.

Brett Donahue. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Snell, all rights reserved.

On Thursday night, however, those familiar sounds were an invitation to an after-hours crowd. A two-year-old Triangle tradition, the Thursday Night Throwdown (TNT) latte art competition, keeps the local coffee scene’s favorite morning people—baristas, roasters and café regulars—up past their bed times.

They pour lattes all day, but even the playful rivalry of TNTs can make any aficionado’s hand unsteady. “It’s everyone’s best worst art,” said Katie Rant, a competing barista from North Raleigh’s debutante café, Jubala Village Coffee.

The monthly throwdowns are hosted by Durham-based Counter Culture Coffee and emceed by Customer Representative Lem Butler. TNTs have created a coffee culture sub-scene that’s spread its roots through the emerging culinary and café community of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill in the last two years.

A fern-like rosetta sitting on top of a brimming latte in an oversized mug boasts a handcrafted product and is an icon of coffee shops and their elusive comfort. You’ve seen it before. The unsuspecting customer picks up their mug from the coffee bar and sees the heart on top of their drink. They crack a giddy smile at the unamused barista and take a picture with their cell phone before erasing the masterpiece with the first foamy slurp. “It visually shows the customer that it’s special,” said Matt Souza, 3CUPS barista.

Matt Souza. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Snell, all rights reserved.

So what makes a latte’s pillow-top into a blank canvas? Butler, event emcee who also trains local baristas at the Counter Culture training lab, says it’s all about sexy foam. Not only is sexy foam Butler’s Twitter handle (@sexyfoam), but it’s how he describes the perfect consistency for latte microfoam. Once the steamed milk has reached about 150 degrees, it’s steadily poured below the espresso crema, and as it reaches the brim, the barista drops the pitcher close to the foam and zigs, zags and drags a masterpiece.

Go to the next TNT, and you’ll get to see that routine on repeat, as well as coffee culture trivia and giveaways to break up the assembly line of beautiful lattes. Sometimes the Triangle’s best food trucks take part will be parked outside the TNT venue to throwdown too.

Here’s how it works:

  • Anyone from café pro to home fanatic can compete for five bucks, and the winner takes the pot. Butler draws two names at a time and each competitor, rallied by applause and name-calling, mans their steam wand on either side of the espresso machine.
  • One pattern is randomly drawn from a variety, like Thursday’s heart, double-heart, rosetta, tulip, and hourglass, or the risky freestyle or blindfold round. An espresso shot is pulled for the two baristas while they focus on making sexy foam.
  • In less than 30 seconds, each contestant is cradling their mug in one hand and steadily pouring with the other. Both cups are placed side-by-side before a kicked-back judge panel of café owners, managers or other coffee-driven people. On Butler’s count of three, the judges vote on their favorite of the two by pointing, and in proper bracket-style, the process continues until the last barista stands.

Imagine a spectator sport where the players are clad with button-ups and facial hair, the coffee bar is the field and the referees are on their third beer by half time. A glass of wine or a bottle of pink-capped Blenheim Ginger Ale is the price of admission and free lattes fuel the rowdy crowd.

A couple sat at a high table feet from the action, sipping wine and sharing a cheese plate of local bleu and brie, olives and almonds. The woman swiveled around to watch. “This is like a horserace,” she said to her husband, sitting up tall to see over shoulders.

The TNT tradition began in 2008 after Ben Helfen, past barista at Atlanta’s Octane Coffee, saw a casual “macchiato pour-off” at a D.C. coffee competition after party and thought he’d like to host them on a regular basis. It didn’t take long for the throwdowns to spread up the coast, and Helfen said he’s even seen Facebook events for them in Brazil and Sweden.

Edward Green. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Snell, all rights reserved.

While creating a Triangle community of the coffee-minded and the curious, Butler said the best part about TNT-culture is that people are venturing out to cafes in the area that they’ve never been to before. Edward Green competed in his first TNT on Thursday and it was also the first time he’d been in 3CUPS. He said he was surprised by the space that’s disguised by a less-than-impressive strip mall front.

Check out Counter Culture’s website for the time and location of December’s TNT, but you don’t have to wait until then to cheer on your favorite barista. Order a latte, put a dollar in the tip jar and you’ve got yourself a throwdown any day.

To view all of Kelsey’s pictures, click here!

Kelsey Snell is graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in December with a journalism degree. She works at the Daily Grind Espresso Café in Chapel Hill, loves a good Americano and one of her favorite Durham spots for a coffee and scone is Parker & Otis.

Follow Kelsey on Twitter at @kelseysnell.

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