New York – Dave Lamason first walked into an off-the-beaten-path kissaten in early 2000s Osaka.
“I don’t really want to stay. This one is quite smelly,” his wife said. But Lamason, who had recently gotten into the coffee game back home in New Zealand, thought it was “f—-n’ cool.” With its older clientele bathed in a smoky haze, he remembers the old-school shop served a coffee with “minimal extraction,” brewed with gear he had not seen before.
“I remember the first time I noticed these crazy, lightbulb-looking science experiment things called siphons,” Lamason says. He was mesmerized by “the steel and the glass and the wood,” and the ritual of preparation. Later, on another visit to Japan, Lamason bought a siphon of his own, which he brought back to New Zealand. He upgraded the burner, and set the tool in a corner of his home.
When he opened Lamason Brew Bar, a cafe in Wellington in 2011, Lamason bought Hario and Bonmac glassware and a siphon gas table from Japan, which he converted from natural to liquid gas and displayed prominently on the counter. It was a showpiece, with glass orbs set in metal and wooden frames, arranged above blue flames of a metal board.
Although he expected to use the siphon infrequently, Lamason says it “turns out that we use it all day every day, weekdays, weekends.” A brew method often found in kissaten, it was unusual to find a siphon in a specialty coffee shop in the middle of New Zealand — and it was popular.
In recent decades, brew methods and tools connected with kissaten have held an outsize influence on specialty coffee. The Hario V60 and the Kalita Wave, drippers made by Japanese brands, are ubiquitous across third-wave coffee shops; siphon brews are on menus from Wellington to New York. Well-known Japanese coffee shops such as Omotesando Koffee and % Arabica have opened overseas branches, and Japanese competitors consistently place well at the World Barista Competition. At the root is the tenacious influence of kissaten.
But with ubiquity comes ambiguity. The rise of Japan on the world coffee stage has meant that the meaning of “Japan,” in specialty coffee, is often imprecise. It is a label tacked on to tools and brew methods with tenuous ties to the country; there are also products and brew methods so commonplace that the association to Japan has been all but lost.
“Now, sometimes people don’t realize that drizzling water over the grounds, spiraling in and spiraling out, and all of that with the fine pinched spout … was a Japanese style of coffeemaking,” says Merry White, a professor of anthropology at Boston University and author of “Coffee Life in Japan.”
Coffee first arrived in Japan with Portuguese missionaries in the 1500s, then with Dutch traders in the 17th and 18th centuries; the country’s first cafe, Kahiichakan, opened in Tokyo’s Ueno neighborhood in 1888. Others soon followed, as did the label of kissaten — literally “tea-drinking place.” Although the contours changed overtime, kissaten remained spaces for coffee with European and American influences. In the early postwar decades, masters and mamas, the owner-baristas of the old-school cafes, adopted and refined pour overs, nel drips and siphons, and these coffee tools and methods quickly became “Japanese.”
“‘Japanese coffee’ is about technique, not about a particular bean or way of drinking it — not like the way green tea is about … drinking matcha out of a bowl in a formal setting,” White says. She describes the two ways “Japanese” pour over and siphon techniques later spread abroad: through people, with the passage of tradition, and through now-international Japanese companies, such as Hario and Kalita.
Tokyo transplant Vaughan Allison is carrying on the tradition. With his long hair pulled back; thin, black-framed glasses; and colorful beaded necklace draped around his neck, he radiates a subdued cool.
A self-fashioned coffee denizen, you’re likely to find him at the counter of a kissaten, his gaze fixed on the master. In the spring of 2020, Allison, with his wife, Rie, an architect, opened a cafe in Tokyo’s Higashinagasaki neighborhood called Mia Mia, which means a communal, temporary shelter in Wadawurrung, an aboriginal Australian language. The shop has caused waves in Tokyo’s coffee community, and has already featured on the cover of notable magazines, such as Popeye.
It’s a communal space with one table. The duo has taken cues from kissaten frequented by Allison. “A lot of inspiration, enthusiasm from the shops that I love, that I’ve tried to, not copy, I mean, you can’t copy a kissaten, you can’t fake that stuff,” he says via video chat. “But it’s been good, having my own little place to try and make things happen.”
Allison lauds and exudes community, which is what first drew him to kissaten. Partway through the interview, a regular customer and friend of Allison’s who recently returned to Tokyo, comes to the door, and Allison turns the computer around to make introductions. “If someone was here, I would introduce you, because you’re a person and she’s a person,” he later says, explaining that the idea of community is integral to kissaten and to Mia Mia. But it is also the coffee, the tools and the brew methods, which have seeped beyond Japan’s borders.
Allison is a regular at Chatei Hatou, a kissaten in the backstreets of Shibuya Station, with wood paneling, an expansive cup collection and strong coffee. But the real draw is its master, Kazuya Terashima.
“I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve seen third-wave baristas at the counter of kissaten watching with the most serious gaze at how this master, how Terashima of Hatou, makes coffee,” Allison says. One of those baristas Allison met studying at the counter was James Freeman, the founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, a California-based specialty coffee shop with a global reach.
“I think that James saw the potential in the pour-over method, and the atmosphere in the kissaten,” Ryo Itoh, Japan general manager at Blue Bottle Coffee, says. “It’s something that we didn’t have in the U.S., and something that people would appreciate.”
Freeman began Blue Bottle Coffee in the early 2000s as a coffee stand at farmer’s markets in San Francisco. Freeman, according to “The Art of the Blue Bottle Pour Over,” looked to Japan for his coffee brewing methods. Soon, Jay Egami, a Japanese coffee expert, introduced Hario equipment to Freeman, who imported a kettle. Blue Bottle began to grow and, with it, the popularity of the Japanese-influenced pour over in the U.S.
At any given Blue Bottle today, decor is minimal. There is a metal bar, laden with scales and drippers; the espresso machines and grinders are often set to the side. “Nothing, no machines stand between you and me,” Itoh says. “I think, to us, it’s a great way of communicating over pour over.”
It’s a communication that takes time, watching the coffee bubble and slide down the sides of the drippers, as stylish as they are functional. The conical V60 dripper, introduced by Hario in 2005, has become a cheap and accessible mainstay of third-wave cafes in the U.S. and elsewhere.
“There’s no coffee person in America anyway who doesn’t know the V60,” White says. “So when it becomes part of standard coffee lore and doesn’t have to be identified as Japanese, that’s an interesting moment.”
“Something like a V60, it’s so user-friendly, it’s pretty to look at, so it’s got this really nice feel to it. It’s absolutely affordable, it’s accessible in terms of money,” says Travis Beckett, a Seattle-based educator at Counter Culture Coffee, an American specialty coffee roaster, about the equipment’s ongoing appeal.
And then there are Japan-based coffee brands, like Cafec, which, Hikari Sakai, its director of international marketing, says has “more than 50 distributors in about 50 countries.” Cafec is an offshoot of Sanyo Sangyo, which Sakai explains invented the cone-shaped filter paper. Today, it sells its own lineup of coffee equipment, including paper filters and ceramic drippers.
Blue Bottle, too, has since designed its own dripper, the Blue Bottle Coffee Dripper. It’s crafted from Arita porcelain, which Japanese merchants once traded with the Portuguese and Spanish centuries earlier. The dripper is used in stores globally, but also sold for home use.
COVID-19-imposed lockdowns and stay at home orders, in locales around the globe, have precipitated a shift to home coffee brewing. The V60, Kalita Wave and drippers from the likes of Cafec are mainstays of the shift.
“As a coffee educator, I’ve definitely seen a lot of more questions from people about brewing coffee at home,” Beckett says. “So these brew methods that you would find in local coffee shops, kissaten cafes, are the kind of thing where it’s … more applicable and user friendly for home brewing than an espresso machine. And I think that’s kind of the appeal of a lot of these methods.”
For Edmond Chu, brewing coffee is a morning ritual. Out of his home in the Netherlands, the musician from Hong Kong runs Kohiraifu, which imports primarily Japanese coffee equipment. First, he grinds the beans with a Kalita grinder, then prepares the dripper, laden with filter paper, and the server.
“Sometimes we will open the window to hear the sounds of nature,” Chu says. It is a moment of calm and a method with roots in Japanese kissaten. With the uncertainty and fear surrounding the pandemic, this ritual became a fleeting act of respite — 10 minutes that “really make me happy.”
Although Japanese coffee methods have their roots in the local kissaten, today’s specialized coffee, though riffing on the same tools and methods, is global. “We’re in the Olympics at the moment in Tokyo, but we’ve received a baton from the kissaten and we’re running in the third-wave world as well,” Allison says.
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