At The Journal.
Indie brews ride “third wave” with quality beans and creative cafés
By Roland Kelts
James Freeman, the founder of California-based Blue Bottle Coffee Inc., was baffled.
His first overseas roastery and café in Kiyosumi, Tokyo, did more business on its opening Friday than any of the company’s 17 US outlets do in a week. His order of branded coffee mugs shipped in from the US was supposed to last a month; they sold out in a few days.
Two women, who stood in line for five hours in front of the Kiyosumi store, told him they had taken the bus from Osaka to Tokyo—almost four hours away—to be there. The next month, when Blue Bottle opened its second Tokyo outlet, a café in the Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo, the same pair turned up again.
“They seemed like lovely suburban ladies,” Freeman says. “And they were thrilled.”
Years ago, my US-based Japanese mother used to complain that she could easily find quality versions of nearly every Western food item on visits to her native land, except a good cup of coffee. Now it’s fast becoming one of the imported items that is easiest to find.
Over the past few years, Tokyo has been gripped by a coffee craze. From tiny one-man drinks stands operated by hipster baristas to larger, artfully designed foreign-owned cafés, robust coffee brewers are to be found throughout this city that is still renowned for its teahouses.
“Third wave coffee,” a phrase coined in the early 2000s to describe a growing number of roasteries and cafés in the US—that treat coffee as an artisanal beverage, like wine—is now one of the Japanese media’s darling loanwords. On television and in magazines, the phrase is used as though it were a burgeoning Japan-only phenomenon.
This nation’s native appreciation of craftsmanship and skill in preparing food and beverages dovetails neatly with the practices of third wave baristas—who prepare each cup by hand, filtering, siphoning, and stirring each brew with a bamboo muddler.
Freeman founded Blue Bottle in San Francisco’s Bay Area in 2002. Five years later, on a trip to Japan, he discovered Tokyo’s kissaten (coffee house) culture, dating back to the 1950s and ’60s.
Guided by a Japanese friend in the coffee industry, he toured 10 kissaten in a single day, hitting stalwarts such as Daibo Coffee, Café de Lambre and, his favorite, Chatei Hatou. He became obsessed with the combination of becalming interiors, impeccable hospitality, and stellar java beans.
James Freeman at Blue Bottle Cafe in Aoyama on opening day.
After raising a reported $26 million in venture capital funding last year, Blue Bottle was able to press onward without a domestic Japanese partner and open three Tokyo outlets—the Kiyosumi roaster in February, the café in Tokyo’s Aoyama district in March and, in May, a shared space in the Daikanyama neighborhood with San Francisco’s organic Tartine Bakery.
Freeman has been the subject of glowing media profiles in Japan featuring him and his bicultural Japanese and US staff. On a visit in March, he returned to Daibo Coffee to visit Katsuji Daibo, the 68-year-old shokunin (master craftsman) of coffee, often compared to sushi chef Jiro Ono, the eponymous hero of famed documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Daibo told Freeman that, after the American had mentioned Daibo Coffee in a recent magazine article, business spiked.
“I can’t believe I’m in this position of making people interested in their own cultural patrimony—To have the ability to steer people to these great places. When I first went to places like Daibo and Hatou in 2007 and ’08, it was like visiting Mount Olympus.
They were at the top. And I was just this little vulgarian in the coffee business. And now, being able to shine a light back on them, is just amazing.”
Blue Bottle is not the first non-Japanese artisanal café to reawaken Tokyo to its love of coffee. Norway’s Fuglen in the Yoyogi Uehara neighborhood opened in May 2012.
The ’60s art-deco interior and ample natural light combine European austerity with Californian breeziness. Its coffees consist of select African beans roasted in Norway and flown to Tokyo to be squeezed in an AeroPress, a filter that helps create light, aromatic and fruity espressos and coffees.
After having worked for two years at Australia’s Paul Bassett Espresso in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, Kenji Kojima flew to Norway for an interview with Fuglen. He had grown impatient with what he calls Japan’s “unsophisticated coffee scene.”
He almost gave up after two weeks of failed communication but, when he was offered a job and returned to Norway for three months, he learned the skills that he uses today.
After traveling to Stockholm and Copenhagen for further study, he was ready for Fuglen’s Tokyo launch—and he was the only one who could make it happen. He is now Fuglen’s Tokyo manager.
“They had some plans to open outside of Norway: in Japan or New York City. I was the only Japanese coffee guy they knew, so they hired me as manager of the Tokyo Fuglen in 2012,” Kojima says.
Fulgen's Kenji Kojima at work in Yoyogi Uehara.
Fuglen, in featuring Norwegian-style roasted coffees during the day and specialty cocktails at night, has become a local landmark for aficionados.
Kojima believes the transparency in Norwegian life, from its politics to its coffee and food preparation, is particularly appealing today to Tokyo consumers, many of whom obsessively check labels and scour ingredients for reliably organic foods, especially in the wake of the 2011 nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.
“Norway has a light roast culture,” Kojima explains, “which means a good quality coffee with a good connection to farmers and consumers. [And] the openness of Norwegian culture appeals to Japanese consumers. You can see everything there. That’s true of the politics and the coffee.”
Still, Kojima thinks that Japan doesn’t really understand the concept of “third wave” coffee. Japan, he says, has never had a first wave, only a second, in the form of chains such as Starbucks and Tully’s.
“The Japanese consumer thinks the third wave is actually the first wave. That’s okay. But I think we should be talking about Tokyo’s own third wave coffee, not comparing it to [that of] the US.”
Fuglen doesn’t plan on further expansion in Tokyo, at least for now. They are setting their sites on New York City.
Kojima says that keeping it small is a key to success. “It’s really hard to find quality staff. If you start expanding, you need to find excellent people who can execute and keep the quality of your product.
We’re treating coffee more like tea or juice—it’s very delicate. We need staff who can understand that, speak English and Japanese, and appreciate the culture we cultivate.”
A Path Less Travelled
Staffing is not a problem for Bear Pond Espresso in the trendy Shimokitazawa neighborhood of Tokyo.
Launched by longtime New York expat and coffee craftsman Katsuyuki Tanaka in 2009, Bear Pond is as raw as it gets. Run by husband and wife, the store is positively frugal: a few stools, espresso and virtually nothing else—drink up, move on is the message.
To hear Tanaka tell of Tokyo’s coffee transformation is to encounter a revolution. He recalls the “gimme coffee” movement in New York’s East Village in the late 1990s and early 2000s, what he calls the “class is cupping” movement, when indie cafés were rebelling against corporate chains.
Tanaka sees the current explosion of third wave coffee shops in Japan as a late-stage bloom driven by blue-collar yearnings from the west. His brand, Bear Pond, was chosen from the name of an unremarkable body of water in the mountainous Adirondacks region in upstate New York. But the bear is also a representative character in his café’s stripped-down, no-nonsense approach.
“A bear doesn’t care about anything but the rules of survival,” he says. “It doesn’t care about trends. Humans are animals, but different kinds of animals. I am a bear. And my company is like a bear—just focused on survival. Put another way: trains go in different directions, but they can’t go anywhere without the tracks. Bear Pond Espresso is the tracks.”
Bear Pond Espresso's Katsuyuki Tanaka (Seitaro Matsuoka).
Tanaka’s outsider position is bolstered by online accounts of Bear Pond Espresso. Several customers compare him to the notorious “soup Nazi” of Seinfeld fame. He serves you an excellent espresso; you sit on a hard stool and drink it. You don’t hurry him, but he expects you to leave as soon as you drain your cup.
“Our focus is squarely on quality,” he says. “And that means we must wait. We are still waiting for the market to grow. When the market in Japan grows, we will jump. The US already has a coffee culture, but it’s just beginning here. We are the outlier. Coffee is the main dish at Bear Pond.”
On a recent visit, the crowd was small but focused. Couples perched on their stools sipping espressos without fingering their smartphones and speaking in whispers. A few young men stooped into the entrance and quietly ordered their espresso fixes like junkies in back alleys. Tanaka is selling a quality product with a wink—coffee as contraband.
“Japanese people will pay for quality,” he says as I down the last drops of a demitasse of rich espresso.
Tanaka believes that coffee should be a three-dimensional experience, with a “sticky” body that lingers in your mouth and your stomach. But despite the entry of Fuglen, Blue Bottle, and countless domestic artisanal popup cafés in neighborhoods across Tokyo, he thinks we’re still in very early times.
“Right now, Tokyo has a supply–demand problem. The supply is growing too fast; the demand is just beginning to grow. But that will change. The [Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games] will expand this market fast. You’ll see. People here will pay even more for excellent coffee.”
*Roland Kelts is a half-Japanese American writer, editor, and lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of the acclaimed bestseller Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US and the forthcoming novel Access. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Psychology Today, Playboy, and The Wall Street Journal. Kelts authors a monthly column for The Japan Times, and is also a frequent contributor to CNN and NPR.