Japan’s Specialty Coffee Scene

Japan’s Specialty Coffee SceneMonths before tragedy struck the Pacific nation, Aimee Sics toured the cafés leading Japanese coffee drinkers away from canned coffee and towards a quality cup.

Photography by Grant Molony

At time of writing, Japan was leading the way on coffee consumption among Asian countries, with an average 3.3 kilograms per person, per year and imports of more than 400,000 tonnes, making it the fourth largest coffee importing nation in the world.

But, for anyone who has visited the country, your main chance of a caffeine hit comes in the pre-packaged, canned form available from the countless vending machines that line Japan’s streets. That, or instant coffee – a growing market in itself.

The canned variety was introduced by UCC Ueshima Coffee in 1969. More recently, freshly brewed coffee was introduced by major chains such as Tully’s, Excelsior, Doutor and Starbucks. And, while the saturation of these chains can still be broadly seen throughout the nation, the introduction of trained baristas with genuine espresso machines means that the good stuff is now on the rise. With better service and nicer interiors, independent cafés are popping up and customers are looking for a more satisfying experience where a quality cup of coffee comes in a trendy venue.

Japan Specialty CoffeeA fine example is Streamer Café in Shibuya, Tokyo. This modest setting is owned by Hiroshi Sawada, a latte artist and café consultant who lived in those cutting-edge coffee locations, Seattle and Portland, in the United States, for over a year to further his skills in latte art while polishing up his English. After years of dealing with mainstream, commercial beans, the Osaka native tried his first sample of specialty coffee and never looked back. In 2008, he was named the Millrock Latte Art Champion during the Coffeefest trade show in the US.

Hiroshi agrees that the movement towards selling more specialty coffee is definitely on the rise in Japan. “There is more and more western influence and people are realising that quality coffee is on offer.”

After returning from the US and noticing the lack of top-notch, western-style cafés in Japan, Hiroshi was inspired to start his own, opening in April 2010. Hiroshi imports beans from the Cerrado region of Brazil.

“I wanted to create a family of like-minded aficionados and bring back that great experience and exceptional latte art, which I feel we don’t have much of in Japan,” he says.

IStreamer café Japan Specialty Coffeen addition to starting his own café, Hiroshi is hoping to lift the coffee scene in Japan by training up-and-coming baristas in everything from basic coffee-making skills to latte art. “I think it is important that every cup of coffee is made with passion and care, right from the start when I grind the beans,” he says. “Commercial coffee just doesn’t offer that experience.”

So far, his efforts are being well received by expatriates looking for a taste of home. With an international school just around the corner, Hiroshi says that 80 per cent of his customers are foreigners. “Many of my morning customers are Australian,” he laughs. “They are all seeking their wake-up call and tend to boycott the chain companies, because they know the difference. I appreciate that.” The Starbucks that once operated around the corner of his café has shut down since Hiroshi started his business.

However, not all of Hiroshi’s customers are foreigners. Since opening, business has been steadily increasing and local customers are spreading the word. Workers at an office that sits two floors above his café are hooked on Hiroshi’s coffee-making skills and included in their ranks is the CEO of fashion design house Armani’s Japanese operation. “It’s a regular streamer latte, three times a day sometimes.”

Japan Specialty CoffeeNot far from Hiroshi’s café is the recently opened No.8 Bear Pond Espresso, a similarly chic café offering quality espresso machine coffee. Once again, the owner was inspired from his experience abroad. Sourcing beans far and wide, the café’s baristas are well trained and refuse to compromise on excellence. Barista, Jamie, trained at the flagship café in Shimokitazawa, a neighbourhood not far from the city. He says customers are increasingly becoming aware of the noticeable differences between coffee from big commercial chains and more boutique cafés.

“Although there are many customers who are foreigners, there certainly are more Japanese beginning to derive satisfaction from another level,” Jamie says.

The team at No.8 Bear Pond Espresso put their efforts into producing good coffee – and they do it well. The sweet aroma of the Flower Child espresso, which uses Kenyan beans, is known for its silky texture, and matches the quality of Hiroshi’s café up the street.

The contribution of individual cafés to the country’s coffee scene is being supported at the macro level by the Specialty Coffee Association of Japan (SCAJ). In the last five years the number of members has doubled from 461 to 947. Takao Ueshima, the Executive Director of the SCAJ, attributes the rise in membership numbers, to the emergence of micro roasters in the country who are actively promoting specialty coffee. The group frequently brings in champions and other staff from the Specialty Coffee Association of Asia and the Specialty Coffee Association of Europe to increase the level of coffee appreciation and barista skills. The group also participates in the World Barista Championships, which were held on their own home turf in Tokyo in 2007.

Japan Specialty CoffeeIn such a caffeine-loving nation, surely it will only be a matter of time before Japan takes a more prominent place on the coffee stage.

*Editor’s note: Prime Creative media sends its condolences to the families of the thousands of lives lost in the earthquake and Tsunami tragedy and the hundreds of thousands affected by the devastation that has hit Japan. We hope visitors will continue to support this nation in its time of greatest need.

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