Behind the unassuming facade of your daily coffee-slinger may be a battle-hardened competitor.

Once a month, baristas from around the city gather to compete in Thursday Night Throwdowns (TNT) to determine who has the best latte in the land. Usually, TNT takes place on the last Thursday of the month, but due to the holidays will be held tonight at West Philly's Lovers and Madmen.

Think of it like the March Madness of latte-making: Each barista has three minutes of time to prep their espresso and milk and one chance to pour. Their latte art is then judged by four criteria - balance and symmetry, color infusion and definition, use of space and the overall impression. The winner moves on to the next round. The ultimate champion wins a cash prize, usually about $140.

TNTs started in Atlanta and have migrated up the East Coast, with the first Philly event occurring in September 2009. "It started out as a way for baristas to get together to create a coffee community rather than be competitive between shops," said Faith Ortiz, the winner of the October TNT and co-owner of Spruce Street Espresso (1101 Spruce St., 215-609-4469, sprucestespresso.

wordpress.com). She calls the TNTs "a meeting of the coffee minds."

For the public, the TNTs are an education in specialty coffee. "The more people get accustomed to good quality coffee, then we can't help but benefit from that," said Tom Henneman, co-owner of Bodhi Coffee on 410 S. Second St., bodhicoffeephila.

com.

Ortiz's employee Kendra Sledzinski is the reigning champ, taking home the November pot. It wasn't Sledzinski's first time at the top of a TNT; she won the inaugural contest. Despite her past triumphs, Sledzinski, who has been a barista for four years, keeps her swagger in check. "There's a lot to beat now. The competition is really stiff," she said. "It's a lot more nerve-wrecking." To prepare, Sledzinski tells herself to chill out and reminds herself that she makes 70 lattes a day.

Henneman, Ortiz and Sledzinski said the cash prize was nice, but it's the camaraderie that really matters. "There's a lot of coffee nerdery," Sledzinski said. "It's nice to share that with people."

Thursday Night Throwdown, Lovers and Madmen, 28 S. 40th St., 8 tonight, $5 for competitors, $3 for viewers, philadelphiatnt.wordpress.com.