Food & Drink | THE HIGH GROUNDS

Blue Bottle Coffee offers a fresher brew

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

Whether by accident of fate or surfeit of real estate, Tokyo’s Kiyosumi-Shirakawa neighborhood is turning into one of the most caffeinated corners of the capital. Already home to artisan roasters, including The Cream of the Crop and Arise Coffee, this district of galleries, parks and low-rise housing is about to welcome a new arrival.

On the upper floor of a converted printing factory, a group of trainee baristas huddles around a table to recap what they’ve been studying for the afternoon. Their teacher is Michael Phillips, a former World Barista champ who’s flown over to Japan to spend a month prepping staff for the opening of Tokyo’s own Blue Bottle Coffee roastery.

Downstairs, there’s a bar counter festooned with premium-grade coffee clobber, including a futuristic Kees van der Westen Spirit espresso machine that might as well have been beamed down, “Star Trek”-style, from the U.S.S. Enterprise. To the rear of the room, a forklift truck sits alongside tubs of green coffee beans, awaiting their turn in a monstrous Loring roaster that can roast 35 kg at a time.

Each batch will be tested the following day in cupping sessions overseen by quality-control officer Kevin Thaxton, a four-year Blue Bottle veteran who moved here for the company’s Japan launch. “My job is to make sure it tastes the same as it does in Oakland,” he says.

Blue Bottle started life in Oakland, California, in 2002, founded by a freelance clarinettist and self-taught coffee roaster.

Wondering why bags of coffee beans didn’t ever specify when they’d been roasted, James Freeman devised an obvious, if not entirely practical, solution: Blue Bottle makes it a policy to use all beans within 48 hours of roasting.

This rigorous approach helped establish the company as one of the leaders in the so-called third wave of American coffee culture — the trend toward specialty roasted, artisan coffee. Other third wavers — Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee and Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters — have already made unobtrusive debuts in Japan by sending their beans to designated shops, but Blue Bottle is going the whole hog. No franchises, no third party vendors: it’s managing everything directly.

“I think it’s cheaper and easier to let a Japanese company do it,” admits business operations manager Saki Igawa. “It was always (Freeman’s) dream to open a shop here in Japan, so he wanted to do it his own way.”

For in addition to being a stickler for freshness, Freeman is also a bit of a Japan nerd. A frequent visitor to Tokyo, he’s particularly keen on kissaten — the old-school coffee houses known for their fastidious service and laboriously prepared brews. In 2008, he made headlines by spending more than $20,000 to import a halogen-powered siphon coffee bar from Japan.

Igawa struggles briefly to find the best word to describe the company’s approach. “Everything is like . . . chemistry,” she says.

Blue Bottle Coffee opens on Feb. 6: 1-4-8 Hirano, Koto-ku, Tokyo; 03-3641-0882; open daily 8 a.m.-7 p.m.; nearest station Kiyosumi-Shirakawa. A second Blue Bottle Coffee cafe opens in Aoyama on March 7: 2F, 3-13-14 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; nearest station Omotesando. For more information, visit www.bluebottlecoffee.jp.