Yoshikazu Iwase has a tough act to top. As he heads to the World Barista Championship (WBC) in Seattle this month, he’ll be following in the wake of Maruyama Coffee’s Hidenori Izaki, the barista prodigy who last year became the first Japanese — and, indeed, Asian — competitor to win the title.
Can Iwase replicate the feat? He already caused a minor upset at the Japan Barista Championship last September, when he broke Maruyama’s five-year winning streak to claim the prize for Rec Coffee, the Fukuoka-based chain that he co-founded with former university pal Osamu Kitazoe.
Iwase’s winning routine that time around culminated with a signature drink that blended espresso, Chinese tea and wasanbon sugar, but he says he’s got something “completely different” in store for the WBC judges this month.
Following the competition’s set format, he’ll be preparing four espressos, four cappuccinos and four originals, and his choice of beans — from the exalted Ninety Plus Gesha Estates in Panama — suggests that he isn’t leaving much to chance.
He even visited the Panama estates last December to take a hands-on role in how his beans were processed — the first time he’d set foot in a coffee plantation.
“I already knew a lot about them, but you understand more from seeing a place once than from reading about it a hundred times,” he says. “It’s like I could see how everything was connected.” (He also discovered that he’s a lousy coffee picker — “definitely B-class.”)
Once the beans had been processed, Iwase had them roasted to spec at Fukuoka’s Honey Coffee, which handles all of Rec Coffee’s roasting needs. You can’t talk about specialty coffee in Fukuoka without mentioning Honey: the company was the first of its kind in the city, and Iwase credits it with getting him hooked in the first place.
In an interesting coincidence, there’s a family connection here: 2014 WBC champion Izaki is the son of Honey Coffee’s owner, Katsuhide. “I’ve known him since he was a high school student,” Iwase says.
This year’s WBC comes at an interesting time for Japan’s coffee makers.
After years of playing catch-up with the more established scenes in America, Australia and Europe, Japan is suddenly getting noticed overseas.
One reason, says Iwase, is that there’s renewed interest in the kinds of brewing techniques — drip (pour over) and siphon — favored by old-school kissaten (coffee houses).
“Those were just the normal ways of doing it in Japan, but suddenly they’ve become cool overseas,” he says. “People are getting interested in alternatives to espresso and French press.”
Izaki’s victory last year also helped, of course. “I don’t think it even matters how I do in the competition,” says Iwase. “There’s going to be more attention on Japan either way.”
Rec Coffee has branches in Yakuin, Maidashi and at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (www.rec-coffee.com). For more information about the World Barista Championship, visit www.worldbaristachampionship.org.