CoffeeLover/Shutterstock.com

A new study shows that people are willing to pay significantly more for those milky swirls.

Science has now confirmed what supple-wristed baristas have known all along: People are suckers for latte art. According to a new study published in the Journal of Sensory Studies, customers both expect and are willing to pay more for coffee drinks with a frothy finishing touch.

The study—whose authors include Oxford experimental psychologist Charles Spence and three-time U.K. Barista Champion Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood—consisted of a series of experiments. In the first, participants were shown photos of cappuccinos with and without milk-based art and asked to rate the likability and the expected price of the drinks. Survey respondents expected to like the embellished drink better—and also to pay 11 percent more for it.

These results were supported by a second experiment, which took place in the coffee shop environment. While participants did not report liking the drink with latte art better, they did say they’d be willing to pay up to 13 percent more for it.

Photos of coffee with and without latte art, shown in the study. (Journal of Sensory Studies)

Of course, it’s no secret that people love latte art; the proof is in the heftier tips baristas tend to receive for these skill-intensive drinks. But now that this truism is backed up by science, should we expect coffee shops to charge extra for the artistic flourish?

Certainly not, says Peter Giuliano, senior director of the Specialty Coffee Association of America (and a former co-owner* of Counter Culture Coffee). The thought of adding a surcharge to drinks with latte art “never even crossed my mind,” he says. “I would be shocked if I saw it as an a la carte sort of thing.”

That’s because baristas consider latte art “part of a holistic approach to quality,” rather than a mere flowery add-on—like, say, the 75-cent squirt of whipped cream or soy milk you’ll find at certain coffee shops that shall remain nameless. Giuliano views latte art as the final link in a production chain that stretches all the way back to the farm on which the coffee was grown. “There's farmers who work on building the flavor of coffee, there's roasters who try to reveal the work of the farmers, and there's coffee buyers [who] find and select and describe the coffee,” he says. “But then it's a barista's job to make it appealing to the consumer. The chain behind them relies on baristas to communicate those things.”

Superficial as it seems, that frothy cloud of concentric circles (or hand-etched portrait, as the case may be) is the last-mile gesture that embodies all the care, attention, and plain hard work that came before. “Latte art exists within a context of caring about presentation,” says Giuliano. In that sense, it’s as integral to a cappuccino as plating is to a restaurant dish.

For Giuliano, the study affirms that baristas can, with a practiced flick of the wrist, increase the way customers value coffee. “Latte art is just one of those symbols that shows that the barista cares,” he says.

Top image: CoffeLover/Shutterstock.com.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post misstated Giuliano’s position at Counter Culture. He was a co-owner but not a founder.

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