Food & Drink | THE HIGH GROUNDS

Raising the brewing bar at Barista Training Lab Tokyo

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

When visiting Tokyo’s Oshiage neighborhood, you might be so busy craning your neck at the Tokyo Skytree you’d miss the striking blue-and-white coffee shop nestled at its base.

Rarely will you find a more professional outfit than Unlimited Coffee Bar. Co-owners Daichi Matsubara and Rena Hirai founded Unlimited in 2012, at the beginning of Japan’s third-wave coffee boom. Both are coffee experts, combining over two decades of experience as certified Japan Barista Championship judges.

Unlimited’s baristas, many of whom are also Japan-wide champions, wear smart black blazers accessorized with a delicate gold antler pin — the shop’s logo. The open espresso counter and wood-tiled brew bar lead to a circular counter, lined with similarly hued planks, where you can sip on coffee-infused cocktails, such as an espresso martini or citrusy cold brew gin and tonic, made with Unlimited’s single-origin beans.

A solid grounding: The first course everyone must take at the Barista Training Lab Tokyo is 'Basic Knowledge About Specialty Coffee & Barista.' | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
A solid grounding: The first course everyone must take at the Barista Training Lab Tokyo is ‘Basic Knowledge About Specialty Coffee & Barista.’ | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Although there are many high-end coffee shops scattered throughout Tokyo, what sets Unlimited apart is its Barista Training Lab Tokyo (BTLT). Matsubara and Hirai began BTLT in 2013, offering weekend classes for professional baristas and amateurs alike in everything from cupping (the tasting and scoring of coffee beans), latte art, roasting, tasting skills and, of course, brewing both espresso and pour-over coffee. BTLT’s ultimate goal, according to Hirai, is to “raise the level of the barista profession in Japan.”

“We get a lot of customers who want to switch industries and open a coffee shop in the future,” she says, “or people who want to enjoy coffee at home.”

To whatever end, the first course everyone must take at the BTLT is the “Basic Knowledge About Specialty Coffee & Barista” class set, shorthanded as “A/A#2.” It’s a full day of intensive study designed to provide an intellectual foundation in both specialty coffee and the barista’s job. Afterward, customers can branch out to classes more in line with individual interests. According to Hirai, sensory-focused classes such as the “Specialty Coffee Cupping” and “Espresso and Milk Beverages Scoring” are currently the most popular.

Upstairs, downstairs: The Barista Training Lab Tokyo room is a practical, multipurpose space filled with coffee accoutrements. | COURTESY OF UNLIMITED
Upstairs, downstairs: The Barista Training Lab Tokyo room is a practical, multipurpose space filled with coffee accoutrements. | COURTESY OF UNLIMITED

I elect to try the introductory classes, arriving a quarter-hour before the morning “A” class begins. The other students and I are welcomed up to the second-floor (usually off-limits) BTLT. It’s a practical, multipurpose room, with moveable chairs and tables and a mobile whiteboard. One wall is lined with espresso machines, one with practice-sized roasters and grinders, and another with the accoutrements — drippers, scales, filters and pots — for pour-over coffee.

Hirai, who has an intense, no-nonsense vibe, kicks off the A class with a rapid-fire lecture on the Italian etymology of the word “barista” (a portmanteau of bar and “ista,” meaning person) before moving onto key barista skills. According to her, baristas must be able to correctly grasp the flavor of coffee beans and replicate it consistently, provide accurate explanations about coffee beans to customers and maintain their own machinery, all while preserving high standards of hospitality and service.

Technique and training: Unlimited co-owner Daichi Matsubara explains how to properly foam milk for espresso during a class at the Barista Training Lab Tokyo. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
Technique and training: Unlimited co-owner Daichi Matsubara explains how to properly foam milk for espresso during a class at the Barista Training Lab Tokyo. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Eventually the lecture moves from general background to the specifics of what makes a coffee “speciality” and a breakdown of the three main coffee “waves” (the current third wave focuses on quality, terroir and, often, ethical bean sourcing). Everyone, myself included, frantically takes notes.

After a break, Matsubara takes over the afternoon “A#2” class. He opens with a detailed breakdown of the parts of a grinder and an espresso machine, and my head swims as I try to keep the portafilter separate from the grinder fork and group head.

Things are complicated further when Matsubara breaks the act of pulling an espresso shot down into seven steps — flushing, cleaning, dosing, leveling, tamping, more cleaning and, finally, pulling the shot. Not exactly the simple “push button for coffee” I expected.

At least it looks good: An espresso pulled by the author. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
At least it looks good: An espresso pulled by the author. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

After he demonstrates, we each fumble through pulling several shots, striving to match Matsubara’s adroit handling of the finicky coffee grounds, eventually emerging with a small cup of espresso and healthier respect for baristas. Throughout, Matsubara offers guidance and tips for improving technique and speed.

The class concludes with a primer on how to clean an espresso machine, a process that, Matsubara says, should take 30 minutes when done properly. His anecdote about a barista who made customers ill by accidentally serving coffee made with cleaning fluid lends the process gravitas, and we are all especially thorough as the class winds down.

An Oshiage landmark: Unlimited Coffee Bar's blue-and-white coffee shop sits in the shadow of the Tokyo Skytree. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
An Oshiage landmark: Unlimited Coffee Bar’s blue-and-white coffee shop sits in the shadow of the Tokyo Skytree. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

I return for BTLT’s “H” class, “Brewing Hand-drip Coffee,” a personal interest. Matsubara takes point again for this more hands-on program. After some diagram-heavy instruction on how to properly drip coffee in a Hario V60 filter, we break into two small groups, each taking a turn brewing a cup of coffee and tasting the results.

The inconsistency of my own cups, even when following the same “recipe,” is astounding — my first cup was well-rounded but lacking the fruity notes of Matsubara’s sample, and while my second attempt was a closer match in acidity and flavor, the third was much too sour. It underscores the gap between my skills and those of a professional barista, unveiling the necessity for programs like the BTLT for those wanting to master the barista skillset.

“From technique and knowledge to flavor, coffee knowledge is something you can’t get tired of,” Hirai says.

Having seen how much I’ve yet to learn, I’m inclined to agree.

Barista Training Lab Tokyo classes are held at Unlimited Coffee Bar on weekends (schedule varies by month) in Japanese only. The first three classes are ¥13,800. To reserve a spot, visit bit.ly/btlcontact.