Spilling the Beans
Java in Tokyo is much more than big international brands and smoke-filled station shops. In this guide, Metropolis takes a look at some perhaps overlooked aspects of the city’s coffee culture.
Leave latte art and Wi-Fi behind at these old-school Tokyo coffee shops
By Michael Kleindl
Tokyo beats any other city in the world for its variety and depth of coffee drinking experiences. Of course, the street corners are rife with slick Seattle-based coffee-drink emporiums. And the city boasts world-class baristas who can decorate a café creme with a Pikachu character, a rose or a Valentine heart. But if you want to taste a demitasse brew of 30-year aged Cuban beans, plumb the day-to-day depths of Brazil Santos #2 or compare a Sumatra Mandheling bean prepared through a cotton flannel filter, a paper filter or a glass siphon contraption while listening to Coltrane or Schubert on vintage vinyl records, then it’s time check out Tokyo’s kissaten.
The thing is, kissaten—the old-school Japanese name for coffee shop—are not easy to find. They don’t advertise. They close early, and are often closed on weekends. You’ve got to seek them out as on a pilgrimage.
If you’ve never tried neru-drippu (cotton-flannel filter) coffee, then you are in for a pleasant surprise. The best place to start would be Café de L’Ambre (8-10-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3571 -1551) Tokyo’s mecca for coffee connoisseurs for 60 years. On a quiet side street in Ginza, this laid-back shop roasts its beans everyday 300 grams at a time. Small batches, they say, ensure freshness.
Over 30 types of fragrant beans fill the glass jars on the shelves behind the polished wood counter. Coffee beans, if properly warehoused, will age over decades like fine wine developing nuances of fuller, rounder flavor and aroma. The demitasse is the cup to try.
Another neru temple is Tsuta (5-11-20 Minami Aoyama Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3498-6888). This ivy-covered kissaten, with its large bay window overlooking a Japanese garden, was started over 20 years ago by Koyama-san who learned the basics of roasting and brewing at Café de L’Ambre.
Koyama uses only Brazil Santos #2. One bean is enough for him, he says, because the taste of the coffee changes according to the humidity, the season, the time of day, and even the mood of the customer.
One more neru kissaten worth finding is Café Bechet (2-2-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-3564-3176). Named after Sidney Bechet, the jazz clarinetist whose vinyl album covers and black-and-white photos grace the walls, this kissaten offers a respite from the crowds and prices of Ginza with retro jazz and old-school coffee quality. After selecting the bean you prefer, say Mandheling, you can also choose a roasting style, lighter to darker: city roast, full city roast or French roast.
The siphon method, a two-part contraption with a glass globe and detachable upper glass chamber, produces an impeccable cup. Coffee Lodge Dante (13-10-2 Nishi-Ogikubo, Suginami-ku. Tel: 03-3333-1597) is a fine example of this fading, yet still delicious, brewing technique. Dante is also one of the many rustic, old brick and dark wood decorated kissaten from the 1960s and ’70s which still survive across the city. Request a tune from the hundreds of vintage jazz albums crowded into old bookcases.
Holding out for nearly 90 years, Meikyoku Kissa, Lion (2-19-13 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku; http://lion.main.jp) serves paper-filtered coffee. But it is also a bastion for the musically pious and a refuge from the sordid world of love hotels outside.
Inside Lion it’s as quiet as a church. Pale, milky sunlight seeps in through glazed windows. Dark wood Doric columns support Moorish arches. Very faded, red plush chairs are neatly arranged below like pews facing the soaring altar of the massive speakers mounted high in a tabernacle and illuminated by electric candelabra and a chandelier. Order a coffee here and worship Bach, Beethoven or Shostakovich.
Near Shibuya station, Chatei Hatou (1-15-19 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3400-9088) has lifted the paper filter brew to an art form. The water is treated and filtered with an ion-alkaline process until it is as pure and tasty as a clear mountain stream. The beans are carefully weighed and ground fresh for each cup. Hatou prefers the Kalita brand filter holder with its three drip holes at the bottom for a faster drain. Other brands have only one drain hole, explained the master, resulting in a more leisurely drain. Such details are essential for the coffee cognoscenti.
The cups at Hatou are of the finest porcelain and hundreds of different designs are on display and seasonal flower arrangements dominate one corner table. Oil paintings in ornate frames hang on the wall alongside modern lithographs. A grandfather clock tick-tocks soothingly beside an armoire displaying antique vases. Hatou is intimate enough for lovers and spacious enough for large thoughts and grand ideas.
At first glance the prices seem exorbitant—¥800 for a cup of coffee, ¥900 for a glass of juice. But if you order a second cup or glass—of anything on the menu—it will cost only ¥500. A modest price to pay for perfection.
Your personality in a cup
Espresso: Moody, hard-bitten and hard working. Into leadership, but not loyal.
Black coffee: Minimalistic, no-frills, difficult but rewarding friend.
Latte: Metrosexual pleasers with a compulsion to be liked.
Cappuccino: Extroverted and optimistic, but easily bored.
Instant coffee: Cheerful and straightforward, but unadventurous.
Decaf soy milk: Self-righteous and fussy, high-maintenance.
Frappucino: Flighty and shallow, trend follower.
Non-Coffee: Fear of coffee means fear of life, and non-likers should grow up.
By Kevin McGue
How did you come to work at Lattest?
To tell you the truth, I didn’t really care for coffee too much before. I discovered this place shortly after it opened and found their espresso to be strong but easy to drink. That piqued my interest and I started working about a year and a half ago.
How long does it take to master latte art?
Some people can learn it in two weeks and others can practice for a year and not be able to do it. Luckily, I caught on rather fast.
How do you come up with your foamy designs?
We have a base of about ten basic designs and all the baristas arrange them according to their own style to show our personality. We sometimes get special requests—people on a date will ask for a heart design.
How do you keep honing your skills?
I’m in training for the TNT Latte Art Competition in July. Thankfully, I can practice while I am working.
Properly roasted coffee is the secret to a great cup of Joe. Masaki Itahara, master roaster for The Cream of the Crop and Co., gives us the Joe-down.
Lots of people want to become baristas these days. Why did you decide to to become a roaster?
I don’t really separate the jobs like that. My goal is to do a good job to make our customers happy. In my case, it was just a matter of timing. The company needed someone to roast so I took the job.
How did you learn the art?
I read a lot and talked to other roasters. But nothing beats hands-on experience. You’ve got to get to know the beans.
Tell us about your roasting machine.
It’s imported from the US. It’s one of only three in Japan, and the only in Tokyo. It can do 35 kilos at a time.
How do you know if a batch has come out right?
It is hard to judge right after roasting, because the acidity is high and the aroma hasn’t come out. I let it rest a day or two and then judge if it is fit to send on its way.
If you’re hipper than the hipster latte crowd, you roast your own beans
More and more coffee devotees are buying green beans to roast at home. Their motivation lies in the scientific fact that once the roasting process is complete, the brown beans start to oxidize and no amount of vacuum-sealed packaging can keep the flavor from gradually turning acidic. After the initial investment, home roasting is easy on the wallet—nama mame (raw beans) are cheaper per kilo—and allow you to fine tune flavors. Here are some resources to get you started.
Coffee Tonya’s Yokohama flagship store (1-27-6 Tennocho, Hodogaya-ku, Yokohama. Tel: 045-334-0203) stocks a selection of green beans and affordable hand roasters that are a great way to get started. Their online shop offers automated roasting machines including compact ones for home use. www.tonya.co.jp
Mame Kobo based in Tokushima sells green beans in quantities ranging from 200 grams up to five-kilo sacks on their Japanese language site. www.1jb.jp
Mitsumoto Coffee sells green beans in one-, five- and ten-kilo bags on their Rakuten shop. site.www.rakuten.co.jp/mmc-coffee
Tokyu Hands locations stock simple hand roasters.
The Coffee Project website has a Roasting 101 primer as well as reviews of roasting machines. www.coffeeproject.com
If you can’t live without your double shot, triple ristretto, run-through-twice latte, here’s a few Metropolis readers’ faves to try.
Triple ristretto restraint in Shibuya.
Mon-Fri 10am-7pm, Sat & Sun noon-7pm. Tel: 03-3478-6276. www.lattest.jp
Streamer Coffee Company
Roaster and Barista Pro Shop in Harajuku. Open Mon-Fri 9am-6pm,
Sat, Sun & hols noon-6pm.
From New Zealand to Kagurazaka.
Open Mon 7:30am-7pm, Tue-Thu 7:30am-8pm, Fri 7:30am-8:30pm, Sat 9am-8:30pm, Sun 9am-8pm.
Ryumon Coffee Stand
Minimalist in Kichijoji.
Open Mon-Tue & Thu-Sun 8am-8pm, closed Wed.
No sleep till Tsukiji.
Open Mon-Sat 7am-6pm, Sun noon-6pm.
Yemeni beans in Daikanyama.
Open Tue-Sun noon-7pm.
The Cream of the Crop Coffee
Fresh in Shirakawa and Shibuya.
Shirakawa: Open Tue-Sun 10am-6pm, closed Mon.
Hikarie: Open daily 8am-9pm.
Taste & Sense
Pour over and espresso in Kami Meguro.
Open daily 11:30am-midnight. Tel: 03-5728-7043.
Lattes and art in Shimokitazawa.
Open Tue-Sun 10:30am-9pm.
Coffee, dinner and music at Yoyogi.
Open daily 11:45am-2:30pm & 6-10pm. Tel: 03-3467-3479.
Coffee laboratory in Sangenjaya.
Open daily noon-11pm, closed third Wed. Tel: 03-3795-6027.
Hard-to-find hideaway in Omotesando.
Open daily 10am-7pm. Tel: 03-5413-9422.
Custom-roasted beans in Shimokita.
Open daily 11am-8pm, closed second Tue. Tel: 0120-935-466.
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