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Kyoto’s Weekenders Coffee keeps customers on their toes

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

To get a sense of how much the Japanese coffee scene has evolved over the past decade, pay a visit to Weekenders Coffee. This specialty coffee shop in northeast Kyoto — which marks its 10th anniversary next month — ranks among the city’s most essential destinations for discerning caffeine junkies. Yet customers who haven’t been there since the early days may not recognize the place.

Over the past five years, Weekenders has transformed from a conventional sit-down cafe into a dedicated roastery. In 2011, owner Masahiro Kaneko removed all the window seats to make room for a Probat roaster, drawing a few grumbles from customers who liked to sit and watch the Eizan Electric Railway rumble past outside. Last year, he dispensed with tables altogether: If you want to drink at Weekenders, it’s now standing room only.

This radical makeover partly came out of necessity. Kaneko now supplies beans to a variety of local coffee shops, as well as an in-store Weekenders cafe at Kamome Books in Tokyo, and he needed more space for his roasting operation. But the change was about atmosphere, too.

“Standing bars are better for conversation,” he says. “In a cafe you just serve drinks and then you’re done — there isn’t much chance to talk.” (One caveat: Customers hoping to parlay with Kaneko are advised to show up after 3 p.m., as he’s usually busy with roasting duties earlier in the day.)

Though the overhaul parallels wider trends in the industry, it was a bold move to make in a city that is only just acquiring a taste for specialty coffee. Kyoto’s coffee culture — far more so than Tokyo’s — is still heavily influenced by old-school kissaten cafes, such as the venerable Rokuyosha and Inoda Coffee, and drinkers of all ages tend to favor bolder, darker roasts.

That’s what Kaneko used to serve when Weekenders first opened, using beans provided by the espresso-centric Cafe Rosso in Shimane Prefecture. He credits “third wave” pioneers like London’s Square Mile Coffee, Oslo’s Tim Wendelboe and Portland’s Stumptown Coffee Roasters for getting him hooked on lighter roasts, with their brighter, more acidic flavors.

“Since I began roasting my own beans, they’ve been getting steadily lighter,” he says. “The reason I started roasting in the first place was because I wanted to draw more flavors out of the coffee.”

Although there are more customers ordering light roasts at Weekenders now — their Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Natural is a particularly popular option — Kaneko says it’s still early days. He’s keen not to push things too far, either.

“Japanese people can’t handle too much acidity,” he says. “If you want to cater to Japanese tastes, you need to bring out some of the coffee’s sweetness when you’re roasting — otherwise this (specialty coffee) boom might fizzle out.”