As a little boy, Brian Leonard loved to draw unicorns. He looked high and low throughout his childhood home for impromptu canvasses — on the wall, behind the TV, at the hinge of a door.
Had he been old enough to understand the concept of graffiti, he may have considered it his tag.
“They were everywhere in my house,” recalls Leonard. “My poor parents.”
Now all grown up, the natural artist has moved past vandalizing his home and into frothier territory: latte art.
As a barista at The Coffee Bar at Front and Spadina, Brian has shot to local stardom for his creative, detailed and often whimsical foam designs. He’s made coffee for celebrities such as Will Smith and True Blood’s Rutina Wesley, capturing their essence in espresso while they’re shooting movies in town. His designs – which range from portraits of customers to surrealist paintings to unicorns (of course) – have earned him job offers in New York City, latte requests from as far away as New Zealand and Australia, and even his own Instagram hashtag: #BaristaBrian.
All the attention began in early April when Brian recreated the Blue Jays logo in a latte. It caught the attention of the team’s social media team, who posted it to the Blue Jays Facebook page. It had 14,000 likes within a day. On Instagram, the post earned 11,000 likes within 12 hours, becoming the most-liked post ever on the team’s account. It was later picked up by mlb.com as their photo of the day.
“It was very exciting because it was featured everywhere,” says Leonard, leaning back into a cozy leather chair in the cafe’s top floor. “I had so many people coming in requesting latte art.”
All the hype is thanks to the fact that Leonard does something that no one else in the city does. Getting a latte with a rosette or heart is fairly common, but drinking a picture of your own face? That’s unique.
“I love the shock value of latte art, because people don’t expect their coffee to be looking back at them,” he says. “Usually people are surprised. They don’t understand how I do it. Most of the time they think it’s a stencil, they’re not sure if they can drink it.”
So how does he do it? Leonard began honing his technique two years as a bartender at Trattoria Mercatto. It was there he learned that good latte art begins with the foam; using a technique called “micro-foam,” Leonard lets a minuscule amount of air into the milk.
“It’s millions and millions of tiny bubbles. You don’t want them to be visible, but you need the whole milk to be of that consistency,” he says.
From there he pours the milk overtop the espresso, focusing on the shape of the face he’ll create. This forms the outline. Then, with a pointed tool (a toothpick or nearby milk thermometer) he adds flourishes of detail with the crema, the top level of espresso. For trickier details like eyes and ears, he’ll layer milk on milk, capturing a three-dimensional effect.
The challenge isn’t accuracy – it’s time. The foam is less forgiving after the first 30 seconds, and coffee only stays hot for so long. No one wants a cold latte.
“It’s always like running a race. My heart is always pounding, it’s like a creative surge of energy. It has to be really quick and I know that.”
Leonard’s portfolio, available on his Instagram @baristabrian, showcases an impressive range of his talents. His favourite pieces include a recreation of Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory,” in which he poured out coffee to recreate the famous melting clocks, and a portrait of John Lennon, of whom he’s a lifelong fan. (The bar music to “All You Need is Love” is tattooed on his forearm.)
It’s not news that the barista life is tough — early hours, modest pay and, oftentimes, customers running low on caffeine and patience. Why take the time to make art? Leonard says the satisfaction comes when a total stranger chases him down, phone in hand, to show him a picture of their face in coffee.
“I love that I can make getting coffee so memorable,” he says.
He also has some long-term goals. Opening a café is high up on his list, or travelling the world to create latte art. Sound a little aspirational? It’s not; Brooklyn-based latte artist Michael Breach has made a living creating foam art.
“I see people doing this at an even higher level than I could imagine. To see people do this and travel and make living off of that is amazing,” he says.
That said, he’s still learning, and there’s one pesky piece he’s trying to get right: Taylor Swift. He’s drawn her at least ten times to no avail.
“She has very tiny features, and I guess it’s the tools I’m using … but I’ll get her some day. And then I’ll send it to her.”
Has #BaristaBrian made your face in foam? Share your photos with us on Twitter at @ViewtheVibe.