December 17th, 2014 was a beautiful day in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa: quiet, relaxed, and with a slight chill on the wind heralding the start of another cold winter. Inside the empty first floor of Blue Bottle Tokyo, a single cupping room glows with warmth. There, a table is prepared with two sets of three cups–the results of the previous day’s roasting, some of the very first coffee roasted in Tokyo by the newly-expanded Blue Bottle. It’s a momentous occasion, and yet, the cupping table remains a humble call to duty.
When our partners at Blue Bottle announced a Tokyo expansion in early 2015, the news (first reported by Sprudge) sent shockwaves through the international specialty coffee world. It’s not the first time an American coffee brand has appeared in Japan; licensed companies are common here, run by Japanese partners with minimal input from their American founders. But Blue Bottle’s new venture in Tokyo is not a franchising or licensing agreement with a Japanese company, but rather, a wholly owned project funded and managed by Blue Bottle Coffee. And now, with preparations for opening in full swing, this roasting activity signals the final pieces coming into place for Blue Bottle Tokyo, who plan to have a variety of different coffees ready in time for their planned opening day: February 6th, 2015.
Right now this means a constant cycle of roasting, cupping, testing, and repeating–the arduous road of refining flavor profiles, familiar to coffee professionals this world over. A local documentary team keeps a camera rolling while Kevin Thaxton, Asami Mori, and Yuki Muneshima–who oversee the quality control, production, and roasting respectively–quietly do the cupping rounds, getting a sense of the aroma, adding hot water, and waiting. As the coffees cool, there’s a sense in the air of calm excitement.
“James Freeman’s image of this store is a mix of both Oakland and Tokyo cultures, I think,” says Saki Igawa, Blue Bottle Tokyo’s newly hired Business Operations Manager. “Although he received many offers by places to open a branch in Japan,” she tells me, “in the end he wanted to do it his own way.”
Spoons and cups in hand the tasting begins, and a relaxed, enthusiastic air falls in line with the rounds of sipping, thinking, drinking, and discussion. Chatter fills the room with talk of what works, what doesn’t, and general impressions. This is where it all starts. From this initial tasting, further roasts will see flavor profiles dialed-in and refined. I ask Asami Mori, the production manager, how the roasts went. “It’s only baby steps,” she says with a smile, “but we’re definitely on the right track.”
The roastery isn’t the only project Blue Bottle have going in Tokyo; there’s also a second cafe in the works, located on the quieter side of the Aoyama area, set to open on March 7th. “We want to expand, but it’s important to see how customers react first,” says Saki Igawa. “James [Freeman] doesn’t want to just have Blue Bottle everywhere; he wants to make sure that the atmosphere at each new store feels right.”
And that atmosphere will stretch into the staff training and food menu, with 2010 World Barista Champion Michael Phillips headed to Japan in January to begin training staff, and Blue Bottle’s kitchen staff hard at work adapting a menu of light snacks to Japanese preferences. This means early morning visits to fruit markets and much experimenting with local ingredients. The new stores will eventually see the likes of toast, granola, and cookies available for those in need of a side to their coffee.
It’s easy to get excited by the roastery space, with its Kees Van Der Westen Spirit espresso machine the center attraction of a long counter, at the end of which lies the roaster and a Blue Bottle marked forklift. It’s an open, simple, and inviting facility, and one imagines it will be beautifully warm when the windows are fully uncovered and the sunlight let in on February 6th.
But for now, here on the morning of December 17th, the space echoes only with the sounds of potential. I watch on as the barista team make their way down from the second floor to join in on a second round of cupping and tasting. This little cupping room is warmed with the promise of things to come. This is a first look into Blue Bottle Tokyo, but it won’t be the last.