On their way to the train station, some curious passersby are slowing down in front of the shop, intrigued by the smell of fresh roasted coffee escaping from the opened window. Whereas Shimokitazawa’s neighborhood is slowly waking up, Narumi Sato is already out on deck.
Sato is the CEO of the newly opened Belleville Japan, overseeing just about every aspect of the project, including keeping a constant eye on the beans browning, looking for the ideal aroma that will make her stop the coffee roaster. Roast profiles, special blends, roasting technics: she learned all about Belleville Brûlerie’s DNA in Paris. Now she’s brought it back to Paris, creating the first shop outside of France from the influential Parisian specialty coffee company.
French details abound here at Belleville Japan: overdyed blue workwear jackets, typical bistro chairs and tables, wooden countertops, copper-edged windows, gold paint letters, vintage-style posters featuring their famous blends—with names like “Château Belleville” and “Mistral”—and even some airy, bright meringues to pair with the coffee. Brûlerie Belleville is an unapologetically French brand, albeit one with an American co-founder, David Nigel Flynn, who saw Tokyo as the ideal location to open the first Belleville abroad.
“Paris and Tokyo are constantly looking at each other for ideas, and they also have a mutual respect,” Flynn says, underlining some similarities with the French coffee culture in Tokyo. “There are a lot of coffee lovers and specialty coffee lovers, but it’s also a country that values craftsmanship, and where drinking coffee is really related to some places with a certain visual style. In Japan, coffee is seen as an handcraft product, that is not necessarily the case in other countries.”
Belleville’s aesthetics and Parisian touch are maintained here in Tokyo, but on the coffee side there are some nods to Tokyo’s own rich coffee tradition. Narumi Sato oversees a new house blend, called “Tradition”, one that she says is inspired by traditional kissatens. “Our ‘Tradition’ blend is nutty and balanced, it has dark chocolate, tobacco, sweet caramel and brown-sugar flavors,” she explains. This is a way of saying that it’s a darker, rounder coffee than Belleville Brûlerie typically offers to guests back home in Paris. “In Japan, we have this old-school tradition of making coffee, and we wanted to make people know more about us by bringing them a coffee that tastes like the one they know,” Narumi Sato tells me. “It was a way to slowly become part of the Japanese coffee scene; but my goal is also to make people now more about fruity coffee as well.”
This approach—a cultural blend—can also be observed in the various coffee-making styles on offer at the Shimokitazawa cafe. Espresso-based coffee drinks are served, of course, but here they’re named using French conventions, with drinks the allongé—a long black shot—making a rare appearance here in Japan. Elsewhere Narumi Sato leans on her own expertise, particularly with syphon brewing (she was the 2016 World Siphonist Champion, after all). “Lattes are popular among our customers,” she tells me, “but this syphon technique is also very liked here too, and it makes for coffee that is oily and juicy.” In this way she is thinking about the ways in which coffee can reach through to both cultures, to express something appealingly French while also fundamentally Japanese: a Paris brand wholly itself in Tokyo. “The Japanese palate is subtle,” she continues, as the syphon pot draws down. “Japanese people are very sensitive to the coffee variations of taste, as they get used to recognize different kind of teas.”
The pandemic has made Belleville’s expansion to the other side of the world unexpectedly difficult, with issues around shipping coffee equipment and green coffee, but now that the cafe is open, the project feels fresh and energized. It turns out Paris and Tokyo aren’t as far apart as it might seem “Some people have come in already because they knew about Belleville Brûlerie from their time in Paris,” Narum Soto says. They’ve already have their sights set on working with restaurants and hotels, but for the moment, priority is given to the Shimokitazawa cafe. “We want to take our time to introduce ourselves, making sure the coffee is tasting great, and see how people respond,” explains Flynn, whose mother grew up in Japan. “On a personal level, I was so excited about starting something new here; I heard so many stories from my family, and it has been always something in my head.” he says.
In the meantime, there is something special developing between the two capitals, two cities beloved by visitors from every corner of the globe for the beauty of their food, culture, art, architecture, music, fashion, and thriving coffee scenes. Paris and Tokyo aren’t that different after all, and for Belleville, things are starting to come full circle. You can now drink the brand’s new “Tradition” blend made for its very first Tokyo cafe… all the way back home in Paris!
Aimie Eliot is a freelance journalist based in Tokyo. Read more Aimie Eliot on Sprudge.