Food & Drink

A monthly subscription to the craft of specialty coffee

by Hengtee Lim

Special To The Japan Times

Finding good coffee roasters in Tokyo wasn’t always easy. Though there’s no shortage of chain cafes and canned coffee, roasters that focus on quality beans seemed few and far between.

So when Kevin Otsuka graduated from Stanford University and came to Japan for work in 2012, he struggled in his search. After exploring Tokyo’s backstreets and prying recommendations from locals, he discovered that the city is full of great local coffee roasters offering superb single-origin beans — you just need to know where to look.

Soon travelers and friends were asking Otsuka for his recommendations, and he began wondering what else he could do to help others in their search. That, he says, is what prompted him to start ABC Coffee Club.

For a monthly fee of ¥1,500, ABC delivers a selection of three types of locally roasted beans to customers both here and abroad in 50-gram bags (or 100-gram bags for ¥2,500). A new supply of freshly roasted beans are delivered each month directly to subscribers’ homes or offices, ready for grinding and brewing.

According to its website, the club began offering “craft coffee beans from Japan’s best coffee roasters” from the end of 2014, just a few months shy of the opening of Tokyo’s first Blue Bottle Coffee store. With this opening, “specialty coffee” — where quality has been maintained throughout the entire seed-to-cup process — was brought into the spotlight. It seems ABC began at just the right moment.

“I definitely think so,” Otsuka says. “Coffee’s popularity is growing, the interest in specialty beans is increasing, the amount of coffee people are drinking is growing, and new shops are popping up — it’s the start of a new wave of coffee and we’re excited to be a part of it.”

Tokyo is now a hotbed of specialty coffee unlike anywhere else in the world and you can now tour many of the world’s best roasters in a single day. Branches of New Zealand’s Allpress Coffee, Australia’s Single Origin Roasters, Denmark’s La Cabra (available at PNB in Tokyo) and Norway’s Fuglen, which each offer a taste of the bean selection and roasting methods at the forefront of the trend.

Rather than looking back to Japan’s storied kissaten (traditional coffee shops), the younger generation is aiming to meet the standard of coffee in other cities, such as New York or Melbourne, while adding its own touches. Toranomon Koffee, in one of Tokyo’s bustling business districts, channels the spirit of the shokunin (craftsman) through its cube-like design and meticulous approach, while Onibus Coffee and Switch Coffee Tokyo set up shop in quieter residential areas to bring a quality coffee experience to communities outside the city’s central areas. And Glitch Coffee, which shares its roaster with other local cafes, makes it easier for newcomers to learn the roasting process.

With so much good coffee in the city, one question remains: Where to start?

It’s a good question, because some of Tokyo’s best roasters, especially those serving specialty coffee, are hidden in unassuming, hard-to-reach places — these are not shops you’re likely to stumble across by accident. Finding good coffee in this city takes time — and often a map.

But when you find one of these shops, such as the modest Woodberry Coffee Roasters in Tokyo’s Yoga neighborhood, you might be surprised at the size of the operation and the size of the batches they produce.

“The smaller batches take more time and effort,” Otsuka says, “but the roasters are doing it because they really care about the quality.”

Otsuka believes they offer a level of quality and an experience unaffected by the long, convoluted supply chains of larger cafes. Though these small roasters operate as businesses, they often focus on providing for the surrounding community, something Otsuka and his team want to support. ABC hopes to connect these local roasters with coffee drinkers around the world, and this is where the online subscription service comes into its own; if finding good coffee in Tokyo seems difficult, finding it in rural Japan is another challenge altogether.

To share a little of the nation’s diverse community of roasters, Otsuka ventured far beyond the metropolis to offer beans from Osaka’s Elmers Green Coffee and Kumamoto’s And Coffee Roasters, among others. (According to its Facebook page, And Coffee is continuing to roast and provide drinks to those affected by the recent Kumamoto earthquakes — despite the lack of water).

This expansion is evidence of a growing consumer base that is becoming more interested in, and educated about, good coffee — especially outside of the major cities.

Since ABC began in 2014, Otsuka says subscriptions to the service have gradually increased, “and the efforts of the different coffee shops we partner with are doing a great job with education, and creating interactions with customers to tell a coffee’s story.

“We try to do that online as well — and one of those things is our coffee map — by helping people find more specialty coffee places.”

The Japan Coffee Map, a carefully curated directory of specialty coffee shops in Japan, launched in 2015 as a way for ABC to achieve its key goal: connecting producers and consumers. Otsuka says that although the online map — which links to images posted by Instagram users — may not be perfect, it is a handy database for novices and aficionados alike to discover the specialty coffee being roasted and served across the country.

And to look at the map, with its myriad pins showing a growing density of specialty coffee shops in and around Tokyo and Kyoto, it looks as though we’re seeing a generational baton pass; from the kissaten with their aged beans and dark roasts, to a more contemporary approach focusing on lighter roasts, sustainability and global standards of quality.

It’s nice to know that even if you can’t make it out to each and every one of ABC’s recommended shops, you can still try their roasts and experience the changing landscape of Japanese coffee.

For more information, visit abccoffee.co.