Food & Drink | THE HIGH GROUNDS

Coffee Amp turns the tables on Tokyo’s imported coffee culture

by James Hadfield

Special To The Japan Times

For coffee lovers in Tokyo, the past five years have felt like a never-ending bonanza. Where once you might have trekked halfway across town to get a decent brew, now nearly every neighborhood seems to have its own micro-roaster or fancy coffee stand. Yet when Coffee Amp first opened in early 2010, at the sleepier end of the main shopping arcade in Koenji, the boom still felt a long way off.

“Back then, there wasn’t much information available about coffee shops in San Francisco or Portland,” recalls Hiroyuki Egi, who runs Amp with his wife, Yoko. The couple first met while working at a different espresso shop in Tokyo. As Yoko puts it, “We’ve been on the coffee road together.”

While many of the recent arrivals to the capital’s coffee scene have taken their cues from the U.S. West Coast or Melbourne, Australia — heartlands of the so-called “third wave coffee” movement — Amp has always jived to its own beat.

“It wasn’t really modeled on other places,” Hiroyuki says. “When we opened five years ago, the concept was just to make a neighborhood shop where you could enjoy specialty coffee.”

From the start, the emphasis was on roasting beans as much as serving lattes, and Amp has steadily sloughed off its cafe trappings ever since. The small tables that used to sit next to the entrance have long gone, and last month an extensive overhaul expanded the space for roasting, while reducing the seating to a few bar stools.

“I’ve been doing this for a while now, so I’ve molded the shop to customers’ needs,” says Hiroyuki. He’d noticed that people were increasingly ordering coffees to go, or were happy to sip their lattes standing. And anyway, the demand for Amp’s beans — both single-origin roasts and its excellent “Juice” and “Drop” blends — was such that it no longer made sense to devote so much floor space to tables and chairs.

Visitors to the petite shop can now watch each step of the coffee-making process. Sacks of green beans stacked on shelves in the back make their way to a glistening Fuji Royal roaster up front, then get bagged on a counter or prepared as drinks using a handsome La Marzocco espresso machine. In the rear is a wall mount for the bicycle that Hiroyuki rides to work every day from his home in nearby Nogata.

“Everything flows really smoothly this way,” says Hiroyuki, explaining that the cafe’s redesign has brought an added perk: he no longer has to get all his roasting done before the shop opens in the morning.

Despite Koenji’s increasingly hip reputation, Amp has yet to face any serious competition from rival specialty coffee shops. But the neighborhood has other attractions, too. As Hiroyuki observes, with a note of relief: “There’s no Starbucks, either.”