When Robert Flam founded Jailhouse Coffee in 2015, he knew he wanted his brand to be different, something that was “animated, thematic (and for) telling stories.”
Flam came up with the Jailhouse concept when watching the 2000 Coen brothers film, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” starring George Clooney. Inspired by the movie’s strong visuals and nostalgic vibe, Flam designed a line of coffees running the gamut from light to dark roasts with playful names such as “Jailbird,” “Safe House” and “Not Guilty” — the Jailhouse line’s decaf roast, of course.
In conversation with The Japan Times, Flam detailed the process of getting his fledgling coffee brand to market in over 25 U.S. states as well as, unexpectedly even to him, Japan.
After establishing a partnership with a roaster in Queens, New York, Flam worked directly with a green coffee buyer — someone who sources and imports unroasted “green” coffee beans — to conduct cuppings (tastings) of various coffees and develop the general Jailhouse flavor profile, something he describes as a “full-bodied cup that’s not too bitter.”
Furthermore, Flam made sure that all of Jailhouse’s coffees were — and still are — United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)-certified organic and are, he says, “sourced with good practices.”
One roast in particular, the single-origin “Brazilian Breakout,” goes a step further: The farm from which Flam sources his beans — the Camocim Estate in the coastal Espirito Santo region of Brazil — fulfills the Demeter USA standards for biodynamic agriculture. According to the Demeter USA website, this means that the Camocim Estate is a closed ecosystem that “meets its needs from the living dynamics of the farm itself.”
This commitment to an organic brew extends to Jailhouse’s roasting process as well. In Queens, Flam roasts his beans on a smaller 27-kilogram machine that’s designated for organic products. Otherwise, he explains, in order to roast on a non-organic machine he would have to first “flush” the machine of any lingering impurities by roasting, and then dumping, an entire batch of organic coffee beans. The result of all this attention to quality and branding is, Flam hopes, “an organic brand you can have fun with.”
Flam met his Japanese distributor, P.S. International Co. Ltd., in 2017, when the company reached out to him at Natural Products Expo West, an annual trade show in Anaheim, California. Although P.S. International primarily markets cosmetics and beauty products, according to a company representative, they were looking for a coffee that was delicious, safe and had beneficial antioxidant and antiaging properties. After a “rigorous vetting process,” they began importing and retailing Jailhouse Coffee beans to a Japanese audience in 2018, showcasing the beans at the third Organic Lifestyle Expo, held last month in Osaka, and other natural product fairs to favorable reviews.
Despite initial consumer interest — along with Jailhouse’s decaf offering, the aforementioned “Brazilian Breakout” is the most popular variety — Jailhouse and P.S. International may face an uphill marketing battle.
According to a 2017 report by the USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, Japan’s ill-defined and under-surveyed organic food industry makes determining market value difficult. The most recent study, conducted in 2009, estimated it to be worth around $1.4 billion and concluded that steeper prices, irregular quality and general confusion among consumers over what constitutes “organic” can make marketing organic products in Japan a challenge.
Still, the growing view that organic foods are “fashionable,” as well as an increasing in number of events similar to the Organic Lifestyle Expo, means that there’s ample room for Japan’s organic market to grow. On their end, P.S. International has kept Jailhouse Coffee’s offbeat packaging and name intact, choosing to render it in katakana rather than literally translating “jailhouse” to “keimusho,” to preserve Jailhouse’s origin story and differentiate it from other organic products in Japan.
“Coffee is a product of enjoyment,” Flam asserts. Perhaps it’s time to give organic coffee a chance to “make a break for it.”
Jailhouse Coffee is currently available for purchase at the Aoyama branch of Natural Foods in Tokyo and online at jailhousecoffee.jp.