While some artists may strive for permanence with their work, Phoenix Coffee general manager Nathan Lilly is content sketching a flower in a steaming cup of latte to make his customers smile.
"It's an amazing feeling," says Lilly, who trains others in making the perfect cup of coffee for all of the cafe's locations. "An excellent espresso becomes like a canvas."
Lilly was one of the organizers behind For the Love of Latte Art, a May event that featured workshops for baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike, as well as a latte-art throwdown. After the steam cleared, a Pittsburgh barista walked away with the top prize, and the event raised nearly $2,700 for a Guatemalan coffee cooperative devastated by a recent landslide.
CLE Brews — a new Cleveland coffee collective comprising Phoenix Coffee, Erie Island Coffee, Red Cedar Coffee and Caruso's Coffee — organized the event as part of its larger effort to win respect and new business for the city's independent cafes, artisan roasters and creative baristas.
"We're building a more educated customer base that will appreciate and find value in a more sophisticated coffee offering," says Phoenix Coffee CEO Sarah Wilson-Jones.
Although local cafes such as Phoenix Coffee have been a fixture here for years, For the Love of Latte Art was the first time independent roasters and cafes have come together to advance the common cause of providing a jolt to the city's coffee scene.
"Cleveland is the perfect city for coffee culture to grow because people are interested in food and where it comes from," says Alexis Hide, general manager of Erie Island Coffee on East Fourth Street. "There's lots of room for coffee to grow."
For Phoenix's Wilson-Jones, educating Cleveland about the art of making great coffee makes good business sense. Over the years, she and her husband, Carl Jones, have grown their Northeast Ohio chain of Phoenix Coffee shops into a $2 million company.
Now, Wilson-Jones is eager to see the industry take another leap forward. She says CLE Brews is planning to host more events showcasing the city's top baristas, and talks are in the works to bring a national coffee convention to Cleveland.
"My job is to make sure that Cleveland's creative class is well-caffeinated," she says.