Today's modern coffee world is never short on stories—it's all we can do to keep up with it. But today, for a few moments, allow us the pleasure of taking you back to a very different time in specialty coffee. This culture did not arrive fully formed—it was built by young people, some of them drunk on the ales of yesteryear, but all of them intoxicated by the promise of a burgeoning coffee moment.
Ten years ago today—on May 2nd, 2007—the first* modern public latte art throwdown was staged at Intelligentsia Coffee‘s Los Angeles roastery. It was born out of an in-house tradition at Intelligentsia, and birthed to the public in celebration of the 2007 SCAA Event, held in Long Beach, California.
Intelligentsia bussed in hundreds of people from Long Beach to LA. A great many beers were served, from breweries like Lagunitas, Stone, and Bear Republic. The Clover brewer—not yet subsumed into the Starbucks Borg—was in full effect.
Much of the planning and excitement around this event is memorialized in a Coffeed post, including a link to this glorious Flickr photo gallery shot by Has Bean founder Stephen Leighton. But we just had to learn more—so we reached out to event organizer (and eventual winner) Kyle Glanville, now of G&B Coffee / Go Get Em Tiger in Los Angeles, but then serving as Director of Innovation for Intelligentsia's Los Angeles project, which at that time was only just emerging.
“It was the most ridiculous spectacle, and it was great,” Glanville tells Sprudge co-founder Jordan Michelman, speaking by phone from the G&B offices in Los Angeles. All 2007-era photos in this feature are by Stephen Leighton, reproduced here with permission and many thanks.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
*We acknowledge there may be competing claims of creation for the public latte art throwdown.
Hello Kyle Glanville, and thanks for speaking with Sprudge on this momentous day. Take us back to May of 2007—may I ask, how old were you?
I was 24 years old.
What was your role at Intelligentsia at this time?
I believe I was the Director of Innovation at that point, but really what I was doing was getting the Silver Lake story ready to go. This was in May, and the shop opened in August of that year. We had our roaster by that point but it wasn't turned on yet. So the idea was to instead throw a big party for the 2007 SCAA Event out in Long Beach.
Where did the idea for “smackdown”—a sort of latte art pocket tournament—originally come from?
I think that (Intelligentsia co-founder) Doug Zell came up with it—and my memory is that Doug Zell came up with that name as well. Every Friday afternoon at Intelligentsia, Doug would have this competition in the break room out in Chicago, making lattes on our [La Marzocco] Linea espresso machine
I think buy-in was a buck. You came in and threw down your best pour, and the winner was selected by Doug. Charles [Babinski, co-founder at G&B Coffee] was there as well, and suggests Matt Riddle and Mike Phillips for more details on those days.
So “Smackdown” is what you called it at the Intelli HQ?
But these were closed to the public, right?
Yeah—it was more of like at the end of the week, anybody who wanted to could gather in the break room, plunk down a dollar, everyone gives it a shot, and it was a consensus award. And then when we were planning this SCAA party, we wanted it to be the best, so we got so many kegs of beer and chartered busses from Long Beach and decided to make the “smackdown” part of our event.
So to your knowledge, this was the first public Smackdown / throwdown event?
I would be shocked if you found one that came before.
But you know someone is getting ready to email us right now, from Pittsburgh or somewhere, claiming they came up with it in 2005…
Well that’s why instead of saying “I’m certain this is the first one,” instead I'm saying I would be shocked if you found one that happened before May 2nd, 2007.
Today the term “throwdown” is much more widely used, but yours was called a “smackdown”—why the change in nomenclature?
I think it was…I don’t know if people thought it was insensitive, but pretty soon after that event it became called a “throwdown” instead. I saw that word start to pop-up everywhere, and thought, “that’s lame”—because for us it was always a “smackdown”.
I was dismayed by the transition of the nomenclature. And if G&B were to ever host one (which I don’t think we ever will) we’d call it a “smackdown” again.
You should do one today in honor of the anniversary!
Definitely not. That is definitely not happening.
Do you recall who won the event 10 years ago?
That was the controversy, is that I won.
So you both helped invent and went on to win the first public latte art throwdown?
Yes—that's half of the reason I wanted to do it for the party in the first place, was to be in it. It was a $5 buy in, winner takes the pot. There was no altruistic or idealist cause, just straight up cash money and ego. And it ended up being that so many people threw down, and we did it in a bracket so it took six hours and people were there until 3 in the morning. Steve Ford was there, he was the main judge, and there were other judges too. It might have been Ryan Willbur?
Ryan Willbur is in these photos, but I believe he's throwing down, not judging. He looks about 12 years old.
Yeah so maybe not, but I know Steve Ford was a judge. Klaus [Thompson, of The Coffee Collective] threw down, David Latourelle [of Franke, then of Clover] was there…it was fun.
I was told a spectacular rumor about the floors at the Intelli roastery—that they were hastily poured in order to accommodate this party, and had to be completely repoured following the event.
I've never heard that one. But we did definitely push to get the floor completed in time. It was this ugly gray epoxy, and we blasted the floor and put down a big clear coat, but i don’t think that was temporary. It took like 3 days, and was a full on proper floor job.
Do you recall the prize amount you won?
It was like hundreds of dollars. Like $360 bucks or something.
Do you remember which beers were served? 2007 was a long time ago in beer.
Racer 5, Lagunitas IPA, something like Stone Arrogant Bastard, and then some lighter lager-y things. Silver Lake Wine did all the alcohol so we had some wine, and we had tacos from Taco Zone out front. We paid them $1000 for a 1000 tacos and they went through them very quickly, and the line to get tacos was a half an hour all night.
Do you have a message for the children, for today’s throwers of down?
I would say, return the “smackdown” to the throwdown—return that term—and also I would be very amped to see at least one return to format, the $5 buy-in, winner takes the pot, kind of like very simple style of latte art party.
So you want to see it return to its roots?
Yeah! Now it’s like, every throwdown is supporting a cause…
So you’re coming out against causes?
Yes (laughs)—as someone who has given a lot to groups like the ACLU and Planned Parenthood over the last couple of months, I think it's okay to have a moment of total indulgence, ego, and lust for money. The coffee industry could use a little bit more of that. Wait, read that back to me.
“I think it's okay to have a moment of total indulgence, ego, and lust for money.”
Well, maybe not more ego…there is still plenty of that in coffee.
When you access that night 10 years ago back in your brain RAM, what was your favorite moment?
In a broader sense, we had been setting this place up in LA, and we were pretty far into that time. Nobody had seen it and nothing was going on. So just having that activation, where it was like 500 SCAA conference people in the house, eating out of a taco truck in the front parking lot…the magnitude of the party and the degree to which it was so full-on. Everybody was trashed, and everybody was crammed into the training room pouring latte art. It was the most ridiculous spectacle, and it was great.
Thank you, Kyle Glanville, and congrats on your big win ten years ago today.
Peruse the complete gallery of photos from the first latte art smackdown / throwdown via Stephen Leighton of Hasbean's Flickr account. All photos used with permission.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.