Coffee

This Naples Bartender Turns Caffeine and Cocktails Into Art

Michael Slabach starts with his version of a canvas—a pair of double-walled glasses undulating like a snake bobbing from side to side before striking. The funhouse mirror-style vessels show tight layers of frothed milk and velvety espresso—Michael’s media.

The 33-year-old bartender-turned-social media creative runs the Instagram page @michaelmatthew_, which he launched during the pandemic after 10 years of working in the service industry. His meteoric rise took him from downloading the app for the first time in 2020 to today’s mass following, with more than 140,000 people gobbling up his eye-catching coffee and cocktail videos. One of his posts of an iced mocha latte with ringlets of chocolate syrup sprayed on with a milk frother and served in a pair of snaky glasses garnered more than 252 million views.

He gets the same feeling with every view and ‘like’ as he did when working behind the bar at The Dock at Crayton Cove, slinging craft cocktails to his customers’ delight. On his social media page, the fleeting nature of the creations is cemented with every post. “Not being corny—it really does make me happy to make other people happy,” Michael says.

Michael’s gallery is his Instagram feed. His studio is his East Naples home, where he installed a full-sized bar in an east-facing spare bedroom. “I’ve got it down pat,” he says. “I know that at 7:30 a.m., you’re going to get moody light before the sun comes up. At 8:30 a.m., you can’t shoot because the sun overexposes the camera [and] 4 p.m. is the best time because you get the golden hour.”

Below the bar and on nearby shelves, he stocks muddlers, shakers, between 30 and 50 spirits, dozens of homemade and store-bought syrups, and about 200 hundred glasses in funky asymmetrical and geometric forms. The vessels are key. “The shape and size of the glass can influence the aroma, temperature and overall flavor profile,” he says. He looks for lead-free glasses to avoid unwanted flavors seeping in and is meticulous in his applications: Espresso drinks get narrow-mouthed glasses to concentrate the aromas; lattes get taller glasses to showcase the layers; garnished cocktails go in wide-mouthed wares to emphasize the toppings. Among his tools of the trade is a Zulay Magia automatic espresso machine—the beating heart of his creative operation.

Michael’s masterpieces swing between Tajin-rimmed, spicy margaritas to mocha macchiatos with chocolate flower drizzles adorning a milk foam crown. Jazzy melodies set the tone for perfect pours and generous swirls, giving his videos a sumptuous, hypnotic feeling. The act of creating takes mere minutes, but the process of generating ideas is laborious. Michael often wakes up at 3:30 a.m. and starts researching drink trends and looking for inspiration. At any given moment, there are about 10 ideas written on an expansive whiteboard in his room. Michael narrows down from there to make his daily videos.

In a recent clip, Michael whipped up a caramel dalgona (a whipped coffee drink originating in South Korea), using a handheld frother to blend sugar, hot water and instant coffee before pouring the airy mixture over cream and ice spheres. He finished by stirring the concoction and lifting the drink out of the frame. It’s easy to imagine taking a sip of the voluptuous blend.

Like many artists, Michael’s journey has been nonlinear. He played baseball for most of his life and studied sports management at Miami’s Barry University. Talent scouts were interested until he tore an elbow ligament during practice, ending his MLB prospects.

In 2013, Michael came home to Naples, looking for direction for his career. He heard of lucrative opportunities working in the service industry during season. After a decade of working behind the bar at The Dock, Celebration Park and Tacos and Tequila Cantina, Michael started his drinks Instagram page in March 2022. Less than a year later, the chocolate ringlet video, which has had more views than Taylor Swift’s most-watched video on Instagram, sent Michael’s following into orbit. The clip put him on the map for brands, leading to sponsorships with glassware, espresso beans and syrup companies. When he crested 100,000 followers, Michael decided to go full-time with his endeavor.

A quick scroll through the page shows a caramel corn latte garnished with popcorn; rosemary- and cranberry-studded ice cubes in a Christmas vodka cranberry cocktail,  strained through a glass ornament; and a Valentine’s Day spin on cold brew with muddled strawberries and bourbon. A pineapple-coconut iced coffee, served in blue and white-bottomed glasses, is reminiscent of the Gulf’s shore, with a gradient from blue to sandy tan hues. He’s big on textures. “Nobody can taste it through the app,” Michael says. “You have to show people.” His café con leche comprises condensed milk under two espresso shots and a cap of sweet, cold foam cresting the rim of a stout, wide-mouthed glass. He likes topping his cold brews with chocolate cream foam because it reminds him of drinking chocolate milk as a kid. He serves the drink in the playful, funhouse-like glasses. “[The glass] adds another layer of artistry,” he says. “The tactile feedback, the way it catches and plays with the light, the sounds of stirring—all of these elements elevate the entire process and make it more engaging.”

His affinity fuels future ambitions. On the horizon, he eyes opening a brick-and-mortar, creating a coffee line and launching a line of glassware. “It’s about taking something everyday and making it extraordinary,” he says. 

Photography- Christina Bankson & Courtesy Michael Slabach

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