From Tokyo to Kyoto, with Hidenori Izaki (March 4, 2017 )

Living the promised dream from last year, we finally set foot in Tokyo, greeted by the warm hospitality of Hidenori Izaki san's (our good friend and long term consultant).

Not just any casual café hop, he takes us straight into the hearts of some of the most successful coffee businesses in this country fast-paced city.

Koffee Mameya

The first place he brought us to gave everyone a peek into the next page of Tokyo's specialty coffee curation. Imagine walking into a Japanese gallery and see the authentic Mona Lisa painting or view from the Andy Warhol's collection at the point of your fingertip. Koffee Mameya offers their customers that exact experience, but with coffees.

Their one-month-old shop is a black coffee haven in disguise. There is no way to tell from the outside of the modern-looking building that you can taste coffees from the Cupping Room; Hong Kong, or Code Black; Melbourne. What's even more incredible is that they only serve the coffee in drip, espresso, or in bags of beans. The owners said that they want to become the bridge for prominent foreign roasters and local home brewers by using appealing designs that are simple to understand. They even keep records for their customers like doctors for their patients!

Such concept is mind blowing for people who are from a different coffee-drinking culture, it's given "niche market" a new face. But the owners did not draw out darker roasts from their selection; it still makes up most of their sales locally. This also reveals a fact, which is that most Japanese tend to brew coffee at home. According to Hidenori, around 60-70% of Japan's coffee consumption are by home brewers.

Sarutahiko Coffee

This makes me think, do specialty coffee shops strive in such environment? The answer soon unraveled in next café we visited: Sarutahiko Coffee, and it's a big yes. The owner— Tomoyuki Otsuka — is Hidenori's old friend, hence the opportunity to sit down with him for a casual interview.

Seven cafes in six years. This is the achievement of one man and his supporting team of elites. His café offers coffee in many forms, with the majority being what the locals really want: clean coffee, roasted medium-dark in a 35kg Loring that churns out up to 120 tons of coffee each year.

During the interview, we could very much relate to his vision for his coffee business. He said that the rapid expansion of Sarutohiko was not purely for profit, in fact, the company has significantly higher returns with fewer outlets, but as the captain of the ship, he had to move forward for the sake of his loyal employees and maintain sustainable relationships with people he works with. The human relationship comes first, profit gradually becomes a byproduct, but it's also necessary because it floats the ship that everyone is on board. That's why you see a decent range of others products that attracts younger crowds and non-coffee drinkers alike at any one of Sarutahiko's outlets.

Maruyama Coffee

Speaking of relationship, Maruyama Coffee, undisputedly, sets the benchmark in the local market. They do an excellent job in maintaining direct trade relationships with coffee farmers from around the world. Single origin coffee is nothing new here, consumers no longer care if they're simply drinking Brazil or Colombia, what they are presented with at Maruyama are the specific coffee growers with character; those who brought the coffees to life. The café has a menu with details on every farm that they source from, although in Japanese, I could see how much effort is spent to facilitate a better comprehension from their customers.

The café also offers its customers a luxurious showroom experience, we felt a sudden rise in status as we were treated like VIPs. Hide san said it's like a showroom for cars, you can "test drive" at the bar and pick your favourite model on the shelf when exiting, except these are packets of fresh coffee beans that people would come back for after a week or less.

The coffees that we "test driven" were mostly medium to medium-dark roast, with the latter being most popular. Despite being roasted darker, they were all very clean, with fine acidity and silky mouthfeel. According to Hide san, there's an obvious group of consumers that favour this taste profile in Japan; mostly age forty or above with an appearance of sophistication and the appreciation for a finer experience. If this were really a car showroom, it's probably Bentley.

Blue Bottle & The Verve Coffee Roasters

Dwelling in the local coffee shops makes it easy to forget that we are in an international city filled with, not only millions of Japanese, but also countless expats and tourists; people with very different taste buds for coffee. Fear not, the Americans are here with their strong third wave brands. Two of them we visited are Blue Bottle and Verve Coffee Roasters.

The former has more than one outlet at strategic locations equipped with clean, minimalistic interior design. What's interesting is their open-space work bar concept that embraces transparency and enhances barista-customer interactions, and they are always packed.

Verve, on the other hand, takes a small but prime location, inside packed with vibrantly colourful elements that resemble the flavour spectrum that we can find in coffee. The freestyle baristas there stands out with their easygoing Californian glow, warm and friendly nonetheless, the coffees they made were just as awesome. It might be the reason why people flood in and out, always keeping them busy.

Put aside all the technicalities of roast profiles, extraction methods, and barista styles, we noticed that the power of a strong established foreign brand can do wonders in the Japanese market. Locals and foreigners alike, they are attracted to the warm glow of renowned brands like swarms of months, excuse the exaggeration, but it's how we felt standing in the corners of Japan's busiest specialty coffee outlets.

But we all know that the coffee industry is an ever-changing one. The rise of the third wave specialty coffee in recent years marks a spike on the graph. We've also learnt from our consultant — Hidenori—that the Japanese businesses tradition is all about sustainability and long-standing brands that remain in the hearts of locals. So how will third wave play out across time? Will it survive the Japanese market ultimately or fade out like any other flash tidal trend? We will explore these questions further in our trip to Kyoto and Osaka.

Rave KwokComment