Food & Drink | THE HIGH GROUNDS

Subtly subversive coffee in Tokyo’s book district

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

There’s a spirit of openness in the Tokyo coffee scene at the moment that’s really quite refreshing. Rather than jealously guarding their secrets, the current crop of baristas and specialty roasters are talking, sharing and egging each other on.

The staffers at Glitch Coffee, which opened in Tokyo’s bookish Jinbocho neighborhood in April, have taken this idea further than most. The menu (single-origin coffees and chunky artisanal cakes) and setting (a converted bread shop from the early-1970s) are all very on-trend. But there’s one big difference here: the sleek black Probat roaster that dominates one side of the shop is communal property.

“It’s a shared roaster,” says Kiyokazu Suzuki, Glitch’s head honcho. “People who are starting their own shops can come here to roast their beans.”

If they need a few pointers, Suzuki will be happy to provide. The 37-year-old is a seasoned pro: He spent a decade working as a barista and roaster for Paul Bassett, a forerunner of the specialty coffee boom in Japan, before going it alone.

It’s an experience that he remembers fondly, if a little ruefully. Australian entrepreneur Bassett, who won the 2003 World Barista Championship when he was just 25, attempted to create a small empire of premium coffee shops in Japan during the mid-2000s. The concept — espresso drinks made with a choice of blends and single-origin beans, all roasted in-store — may not sound particularly novel now, but when the first shop opened in Ginza in 2006, it was unheard-of.

“It was too early, Paul has said so himself,” Suzuki says. “There are more shops like that now, but at the time, people were only just getting used to the idea of ordering a latte or cappuccino. The idea of choosing the type of bean for your espresso is something that a lot of Japanese people struggle with, even now.”

During his stint at Paul Bassett (which still operates a single branch in Shinjuku), Suzuki often had to explain the ins and outs of the Australian coffee scene for the benefit of local media. However, as Japan’s baristas and roasters began to win top prizes at international competitions, he found himself thinking more seriously about cultivating a distinctive, homegrown coffee scene.

“I want to run this place as a team,” he says of Glitch Coffee. “Like Team Japan.” Hence the decision to invite others to use the roaster; even for an industry veteran like Suzuki, there’s a healthy synergy in getting other people involved. You might even say it is a bit subversive.

“When someone new comes along and starts roasting beans, that’s unusual, right?” Suzuki continues. “It’s like a bug in the system. But then if that person inspires you, and brings something new to the table, you start to question your way of doing things. Something that was abnormal becomes the new norm.”

Glitch Coffee & Roasters is located at 1F 3-16 Kanda-Nishikicho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; 03-5244-5458; Mon.-Fri. 7:30 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat.-Sun. 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; nearest station: Jinbocho. For more information, visit www.glitchcoffee.com.