Onto the foam and froth of a fresh cup of latte, Greg Suekoff pours a pattern of concentric hearts. It's ephemeral, romantic and almost too perfect to drink.
Almost. The 10 tiny hearts slowly slip away with each sip.
To Suekoff, a barista at Caffe Pronto Coffee Roastery, this is an art form.
Tomorrow, he is taking his talents to an international stage in Seoul, where he will judge and compete in a top-tier national tournament.
After winning the "latte art duel" at the Ultimate Barista Challenge at the New York International Restaurant Food Service Show this winter, he was invited to South Korea's challenge.
"I dethroned the latte art champion in New York," Suekoff says. "So I'll get to compete against the South Korean champion."
When Suekoff speaks of his craft, he weighs his words like coffee beans. At 30, he retains traces of the youthful philosophy major he was at Towson University. His 10 years of "slinging coffee" in various venues coincided with the mid-1990s coast-to-coast gourmet java boom that originated in Seattle.
He said a perfectly poured or etched latte is something to be enjoyed in the moment.
"It's an exercise in non-attachment," he says, "If you're doing something over and over again, you might think 'Boy, this is the best I've ever done,' but then it's gone."
Never mind that a customer might not take in the fleeting design.
"If you put your heart into it, it's inspirational," he says.
In Seoul at the Ultimate Barista Challenge, Suekoff will act as a judge for several events. When winners are declared, he said, he'll have a chance to go head-to head with at least one.
He is especially ready to whip up his own "Penni's Delight," an apple pie-like blend, in the Espresso Frappe category. Named after a colleague, Penni Williams, the frappe features the tart flavor of Granny Smith apples.
At home, Suekoff walks five minutes to work in a "car-free" life and enjoys the parade of people that leads to a coffee shop's door, with caffeine as a common denominator - making everyone just a bit smarter.
"You see rich and poor sailors, the political people, the military and the alternative St. John's College students," he says. "Seeing all those kinds gathering for the same chemical stimulation."
Unsurprisingly, he is well-known to a steady stream of regular customers in the state capital.
Jody Danek and Gavin Buckley, co-owner of several Annapolis restaurants including Lemon Grass, stopped in at the Russell Road shop to get their share of caffeine.
"He's a true barista, passionate about every cup," Buckley said. "Some around town, you can tell, are going through the motions."
Andy Springer, the roaster, says Suekoff's technique is "top-notch," akin to perfect pitch for musicians.
When Suekoff walks into the coffee roasting room, just a few steps away from his shop counter, the sight - and smell - of coffee beans from equatorial points all over the world seems to take hold.
"Do you know the folklore of how coffee was discovered?" he asked. "When an Ethiopian goatherd noticed his goats dancing after eating seeds of a cherry." "
In Suekoff's view, the East Coast is still years behind the Northwest when it comes to "coffee culture." But his critique of Starbucks might give many pause: "a consistent cup of characterless coffee."
The barista's personal favorite? Panamanian.
He does not taint it with cream, sugar or heart patterns.
"Always. Water and beans," Suekoff said.