I think it was Coltrane. I thought I heard a rebellious sax in there. He’s my default jazz guess. I wonder how many times I’ve been right. The volume was loud enough to make my uneducated guess but low enough to match the opium den thing the darkly wood-paneled room had going. The usual coffee shop chatter I’m used to was absent and so were most of the patrons. A quiet gal sat by herself in a corner, smoking slowly. At another table, a much older man with a newspaper did the same.
Behind the counter a middle-aged Japanese man slowly poured water in a slight stream as he swirled the kettle around in a circular pattern. If you watched him for more than several seconds you’d start to doze off. His wife, also middle-aged, was at the far end of the bar preparing us a fresh sugar donut we ordered because nothing goes better with coffee than anything with the word sugar in it. Dave and I were seated at a table near the stairs that brought you down into the traditional Japanese coffee café or kissaten. Late the evening before a sleek, white porpoise had whisked us to Kyoto from Tokyo in bullet train comfort. She quickly and quietly glided on the tracks as Dave and I stared at blurry Japan on the other side of the window. From what I had read, Kyoto, Japan’s first capital for centuries, is the birthplace of most things culturally Japanese. There were fabled shrines, gates and rocks every three or four steps and we would get to some of them. But first, there would be coffee.
Anyone who knows me even just a smidge knows that I’ve long been obsessed by the black brew. I’m a proud coffee tourist. The top two things I look for in any destination are where to eat and where to drink coffee, if they’re drinking it at all. Further down the list are monuments, bookstores, bars and the occasional strip club. I aim to be well-rounded.
But the society that created the perfect toilet is also renowned in coffee circles for creating not just the perfect cup, whatever that is, but also by elevating what can be done with roasted beans and dairy. At Streamer Coffee Company in Tokyo’s Shibuya ‘hood, Dave and I spent roughly eight dollars each on a latte the size of a discus because we wanted to appreciate the work of world champion latte artist, Hiroshi Sawada. He himself wasn’t there but his people were well-trained in creating what looked like a halved Vidalia onion in milk foam. I suppose I was expecting something like a replication of Edvard Munch’s The Scream in my foam but I quickly got over it once I brought the drink to my lips. Long live lactose! Creamy and rich didn’t begin to describe what we were enjoying, yet the expertly pulled espresso shot’s presence was blissfully apparent. Truthfully, I was more enamored by their Military donut. It was a chocolate cake donut, decorated in such a precise camouflage pattern that I was surprised I saw it in the first place. We quickly made sure we never saw it again.
While the military donut would make a defense contractor blush, the simple sugar donut the kindly lady brought to us in that kissaten in Kyoto was even better. Slightly sweet, it was a great foil for what she placed in front of us next. Two wide-mouthed porcelain cups of coffee appeared along with a comically tiny milk pitcher about the size of a chess pawn. The coffee was intense, teetering between dark and medium but never bitter. The barkeep had filtered it through flannel cloth which I imagine is less porous than paper. Fewer pores mean better absorption of undesirable flavors before they hit my cup. I can’t say for sure I know what I’m talking about but I’m now guessing that maybe, maybe, it could have been Thelonius Monk.
Bear Pond Espresso’s sometimes stoic maestro, Kats, certainly seemed to know what he was talking about. He suddenly came alive when showing us his worn notebook he kept behind his counter. The figures scrawled on every page detailed a coffee bean’s grind size, the humidity in his tiny storefront and other things I couldn’t quite pick out from his heavily accented English. All of these aspects affect the taste of espresso and he diligently adjusts for them throughout the day. He only sells straight espresso until 2:00pm daily for some reason and my brother and I arrived right at the cut-off time. What was placed before us was a ceramic espresso cup with gold lettering on the outside. Inside, a shallow pool of angry stuck to the bottom.
But there was nothing to be upset about. His espresso wasn’t so much a drink as a lacquer, completely coating the inside of my mouth. Coating it with flavor? Yes, but much more than that. My taste buds were being painted in alternate strokes of citrus, black strap molasses and rounded bitters. My tongue was drowning. The often-stoic younger brother of mine even raised his often-stoic eyebrow. Kats had succeeded in taking a drink I was well familiar with and moving it beyond the limits of what I knew it to be.
His coffee aside, it was Kats’s passion for his craft I really envied. Kats was near obsessive about every aspect from the super secret source of his primarily African beans to the way he roasts them to his unapologetic brewing style. He was proud of his unique product. Nobody was doing what he was doing and he relished that fact, almost too much. When I threw around the term third-wave coffee, Kats recoiled. He was riding the fourth wave, he proclaimed, and everyone else can suck his wind.
We left Bear Pond and walked the streets of Tokyo’s quirky Setagaya neighborhood. I was fired up and it wasn’t just the caffeine. I was always inspired by people who took one thing and charged at it with all they had. Kats had quit what seemed like a lucrative career in advertising to do coffee like no one else, at least that was what the narrative seemed. And more importantly, he wasn’t afraid to say so. It was cocky, to be sure, but like Dizzy Dean famously said, “It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.”
I don’t know that I’m built for obsession on Kats’s level. It takes an absurdly narrow focus to be that successful and I struggle with ordering off a lunch menu. How do you focus intensely on one thing when so many other shiny things easily vie for my attention?
Thanks to Oliver Strand’s superb piece on Tokyo coffee, Dave and I continued to find plenty of good cups in the capital city. Poor kid; I felt a little guilty dragging him around to suck down stimulants and pastries all day but it could have been worse. They could have been horrible stimulants and lame pastries. Omotasando Koffee, conveniently located in the Omotosando area, had top-shelf stimulants and what I can only assume were delicious pastries as they had ran out. The place was simple, beautifully so with deep hazel wood framing white walls. Modern design tempered by Japanese form. It could have doubled as the Swedish embassy.
Omotasando was a one-man show. The barista stood behind a spare counter which held everything he needed and nothing more. From about ten feet he resembled one of those carnival showmen from the 19th century requesting his listeners to “step right up”. So I did and within minutes, he handed me three traditional machiattos in ceramic and metal saucers. My brother Mike had joined us and the three of us sat in the small courtyard/rock garden sipping on another fine example of cupped Japanese obsession.
There I go using that word again. Obsession. I’m not sure a better one exists to describe Japan’s take on not just coffee but many other things. It was evident in every café we visited above — and we visited plenty more —from atmosphere to execution. The new coffee kids on the block were certainly carriers of this native gene but truthfully it was the old kissaten masters who really intrigued me. We’re talking obsession lasting decades. Since before World War II, the kissaten served coffee to a people internationally known for being tea lovers. Some of these kissaten have been run by the same family since after the war, sometimes still by the original proprietors.
Unlike the subterranean coffee den in Kyoto, to get to Daibo, you have to climb up. On the second floor of a building that could have housed anything, was a long, narrow room, dimly lit but murmuring with life. The long bar was crowded with mostly suits at about six in the afternoon. It was happy hour. The few tables were small and situated wherever there was room and wherever there wasn’t. Some bookshelves lined the dark wood walls and what is it with kissaten and dark wood walls? Dave and I found a very un-American amount of space at the end of the bar and we were greeted by an older gentleman behind the waist-high counter who was unable to speak much English. He quickly retreated to his own world of slowly and deliberately creating each cup of coffee as if the place was empty.
Like the kissaten in Kyoto, I was confident I heard a few notes from ‘A Love Supreme’ faintly filling the air alongside the hearty whiff of dark beans crushed between burrs. One of the old coffee man’s helpers handed us a small menu listing the few coffees they offered, arranged by country. I remember ordering something from Brazil and Dave got something from a few thousand kilometers north of Rio. The only other thing on the menu was cheesecake, so we got one of those, too.
I was in love with the vibe of the place. There was conversation but nobody was raising their voice above a strong throat-clearing. What a great place to meet someone you were having an affair with. Hushed secrets and forbidden flirting passing through the heat of the just-brewed coffee. I could use an affair.
While we waited, I took out my camera and snapped a couple of pics until the old man shook his head. “No photo.” Oddly, most of these coffee joints prohibited photography though I tried to play dumb. Sometimes I would ask as nicely as I could before taking out the camera and they would agree to it. At Daibo, I didn’t wait so it wasn’t going to happen. Serves me right. Daibo’s customers were busy just trying to have affairs.
The coffee and cheesecake arrived a good fifteen minutes after placing the order with one of his young minions. The cheesecake was more cheese than cake. It was tasty but the coffee was stern. The old man served it in somebody’s pottery class experiment at about two-thirds full. I’ll admit my initial reaction was sticker shock. Almost ten dollars for about six or seven ounces of coffee was a little rich, especially since I wasn’t told the farmer’s name or his astrological sign.
But after I brought it to my lips, I realized that wasn’t the point. What the old man created in front of me, from beans roasted on an old roaster directly in front of me, wasn’t meant to be poured into a paper cup on my way out as I looked down at my Facebook feed. His careful brew was meant to be sipped, to be savored in between volleys of conversation. You needed to linger and let the subtle brown sugar and butterscotch flavors tickle your tongue while you discuss your next secret rendezvous.
WHAT: Black pearls spilled from a cup of Bear Pond Espresso’s eponymous brew.
WHEN: December 6, 2013
WHERE: Bear Pond Espresso, Setagaya, Shibuya, Tokyo, Japan