In Okinawa Prefecture, one coffee company is doing its part to preserve the region’s hundreds of endemic coral varieties.

Twenty-six years ago, Sooeido Co., Ltd. began as a company selling Okinawa products such as hibiscus tea and ukoncha (turmeric herbal tea) as souvenirs to tourists. Many of its repeat customers were domestic tourists who traveled to Okinawa to go diving in the prefecture’s coral reefs. But, according to company representative Jun Kajiyama, about 10 years ago, the company started getting disturbing reports from these divers.

“In brief they said, ‘The ocean has really gotten dirty,’ and that led our company director to wonder why the ocean was dirty and why the coral was getting bleached,” Kajiyama says in a phone interview.

Sooeido wanted to do something productive with the dead coral, as well as promote its regrowth. First they tried to utilize the 40-odd minerals present in coral calcium, but that proved to be a dead end. Eventually they landed on the idea of using coral to roast coffee.

According to Kajiyama, there are three types of roasting techniques: jikabi (open-heat), sumiyaki (charcoal-roasted) and ishiyaki (stone-roasted). Rather than roasting by one of these standard methods, Sooeido elected to use Okinawa coral as the fuel to roast coffee, thus birthing the 35Coffee brand.

The name itself is a bit of wordplay: The number 35 is neither pronounced “thirty-five” nor as “three-five” but is instead read as “san” (three) and “go” (five) — which together forms “sango,” the Japanese word for coral. Its black-and-white logo is also a nod to the unique name: white represents pre-roasted coral while black represents the coral post roast.

But getting permission to use Okinawa coral in the coffee roasting process wasn’t so straightforward. Japanese regulations, such as the Nature Conservation Law, prohibit the “collection of marine flora and fauna,” while the Fishery Adjustment Rule completely bans the collection of hermatypic coral (coral that builds reefs by depositing calcareous materials from their skeletons) in Okinawa or removing coral, dead or alive, from the prefecture. 35Coffee had to get a special permit in order to roast with coral at all. “(35Coffee) is a coffee that can only be made in Okinawa,” Kajiyama emphasizes.

The company’s unique vision and ecofriendly coffee have lead to regional success — 35Coffee has 11 stores in the prefecture, and has plans to expand in 2019.

The process of roasting with coral is also quite difficult. Dried-out coral is porous and filled with small holes and imperfections, so if it is heated too quickly it can explode. Instead, 35Coffee gradually heats the coral in its 80-kilogram roaster to 200 C and slow-roasts the coffee for 1½ to two hours, depending on the roast. (For comparison, roasting coffee typically takes somewhere around 15 to 20 minutes.)

The result is three different blends of Colombian, Brazilian and Indonesian beans — the J.F.K. blend, the Island blend and the Sango blend. The company also produces an Island Ice Special variant of the Island blend specifically for iced coffee.

According to Kajiyama, 35Coffee’s blends “remove zatsumi (off-flavors) and sourness” to craft a coffee that is “light and easy to drink.” Rather than “coffee for fanatics” that not everyone would enjoy — or be able to afford — 35Coffee is designed to be a “simple” coffee for the masses. Its J.F.K. blend in particular is sweet and mild with good mouthfeel, a perfect cup for a midafternoon pick-me-up, even for people who usually don’t consume coffee.

But there’s one more feel-good reason to support 35Coffee: The company donates 3.5 percent of its profits to its Coral Regeneration Project. Partnering with Okinawa Kaihatsu Corp., another Okinawa company that has a fisheries research center, over the past 10 years 35Coffee has planted — and continues to monitor — around 2,800 new coral.

“If nothing is done, Okinawa’s coral will be extinct by 2050,” Kajiyama says. “There are over 800 coral varieties in (the world’s) oceans, and 370 varieties are only in Okinawa.

“And if Okinawan coral disappears, it will have an impact on the rest of the world’s coral. So (35Coffee’s) actions are not just for Okinawa.”

But of course 35Coffee can’t do it all alone — they partner with other companies, such as Meiji and Suntory, as well as the brand’s own customer base, to effect positive ecological change in the prefecture’s coral reefs.

“Our aim is coffee for an eco-conscious lifestyle,” Kajiyama says.

For more information about 35Coffee and its Coral Regeneration Project, visit 35coffee.com.

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