J.T. Clifton, a barista and latte artist, works at Bastrop's new coffee shop – Café Du Jour. Clifton is one of the top five latte artists in the state of Arkansas.
"That was really cool to be named one of the top five in the state," he said. "It was really humbling, too."
For the first three months of latte art, it is impossible to pour anything, Clifton explained.
"It's hard to grasp all the intricacies of it," he said. "Once you finally start to get it though, it's like a snowball effect. You start getting better and better and better, and then you just want to keep pouring and pouring. It's a weird thing to fall in love with, but it's super enjoyable."
Clifton said he has been involved in the specialty coffee business for two and a half years and part of the coffee community as a whole for five years.
While in college at the University of Central Arkansas, Clifton said he got involved in specialty coffee or third-wave coffee, which he explained involves locally-owned businesses.
At the same time, Clifton said he became fascinated with what it takes to comprise coffee, from the beans being grown on the farms overseas to pouring it in a cup.
"Just seeing the process of the plants being seeded, then the beans being dried out, it really piqued my interest," he said. "Once I realized that this was something I had a passion for, some friends who worked at the coffee shop near the university gave me the opportunity to jump on."
Clifton said from there, he took it upon himself to enjoy what he was doing.
"It was fun," he said. "For the first time, I understood when people said 'If you love what you do, you never work a day in your life.'"
One of the things Clifton loves about the specialty coffee business is the many people he gets to meet, he said.
"I get to meet all different kinds of people from all different aspects of life," he said. "Even just doing the black coffees and the espresso drinks, I love that atmosphere. You get to have a lot of one-on-one interaction with the customers, and it's just really cool to share our life stories and get to know one another simply from them coming in and wanting to drink some coffee."
Clifton said he ended up working at Café Du Jour because of his friendship with Michael Pope, the son of Café Du Jour owners Rick and Dee Ann Cole. Clifton said he had known Pope since 2012.
"Michael came to me last summer, and told me about this opportunity – about his parents opening up a shop in Bastrop because there wasn't anything like it here," he said.
Clifton said he and his fiancée felt like it would be a good opportunity for them.
"Not only did we think it would be a good opportunity to find some success for ourselves, but we wanted to get out of our comfort zone," he said. "We wanted to come down and see what it was all about. We wanted to take a chance, regardless of the outcome. Ends kept meeting up and doors kept opening up, so here I am."
Clifton has competed in several latte art competitions in various places, with the most recent being on St. Patrick's Day in Conway, Arkansas. He said the first competition he won was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also placed second in a competition in Memphis, Tennessee.
"Latte art competitions are all about pouring your espresso and steaming your milk, so it comes down to free-pouring instead of having any stencils," he said. "They judge you on the contrast between the lightness of the milk and the darkness of the espresso. They also judge on the symmetry of the art that you draw, like a tulip or a rose or even a heart, as well as the fullness of the cup. It's supposed to be all the way to the top with no spills. Spills are deductions. It needs to be super full and super clean at the same time."
At the competitions, Clifton said he meets many people that he would not otherwise meet.
"I like to do tulips," he said. "With a ripple base, it looks like it has more lines at the bottom of it. It looks cleaner, and it just adds a different aspect instead of a regular dollop. I also like to pour swans. They are pretty fun to pour. Honestly, I enjoy a nice clean rippled heart. I like those a lot."
Clifton said he used to draw a lot when he was younger, but he does not draw as much these days.
"I tend to draw here and there because I do love art, but not as much as I would like to," he said. "This [latte art] is kind of the release of that creative energy."
Café Du Jour does not yet have an espresso machine, but they plan to have one in the future. When they get one, Clifton said he plans to create latte art locally for the customers.
"That'll just create a whole new dynamic for the community – to come and experience that," he said. "It's really cool to see people's reactions when you draw something in their cup. They have no idea how it got there, and that's really fun. I love that a lot."
With a bachelors degree in business administration, marketing and management, Clifton has big dreams.
"One day, I'd like to open up a shop overseas," he said. "I've got a heart for being over in Zambia and South Africa."
To see some of Clifton's latte art, follow him on Instagram @coffeehuncho.