Though curtains still hide the spacious interior of Blue Bottle Coffee Tokyo from curious passersby, the action inside the company's soon-to-open flagship Japanese roastery cafe is like a kettle coming to boil. We looked in on the preparations for the cafe's opening—at Kiyosumi-Shirakawa on Friday February 6th—to get an early glimpse of the coffee experience our friends and partners at Blue Bottle have in store for Japan.
Staff members zipped around the counter space, simulating the crush of customers soon to descend by placing orders, brewing coffee, tasting the results, and then repeating the process. As flavors were dialed in, service sharpened, and efficiency honed, the end of the counter filled quickly with a variety of cups, mugs, and glasses, all of them sitting patiently like a haven for the coffee lover. I’m told it’s been like this for the last couple of weeks, as staff refine their craft and smooth out kinks for what promises to be a hectic opening.
“It was a zoo here yesterday,” said Blue Bottle founder James Freeman of the previous night’s press event and roasting demonstration. “The whole irony of it is that this location is way out of town so [we thought] we can open slow, and no one will really know we’re here, and we can take our time.” He paused, watching the counter service run-throughs and thinking for a moment before adding, “It’s not turning out that way at all.”
In talking about Blue Bottle’s place in the growing Tokyo coffee scene, Freeman stressed his desire to maintain existing harmonies while carving out a unique spot of Blue Bottle's own. “I love the spectrum of coffee shops here in Japan,” Freeman said. “There are lots of little spots, beautifully executed, but I think there’s space for a little more scale—bigger places that can offer a little more variety without sacrificing quality. We’re not a Starbucks chain, but we’re not a Bear Pond Espresso, either—I feel there’s room for growth in the middle.”
And momentum to fill that middle ground continues to rocket ever forward—staff training bustles under the watchful eyes of California-based trainers Michael Phillips and Andrew Curry, on-site for rigorous launch preparations, while the food menu is coming together with a selection of familiar favorites: waffles, pastries, cookies, and cakes.
The coffee, of course, is a mixture of the Blue Bottle blend approach and the single-origin experience, with the roaster's Hayes Valley blend prepared on a Kees van der Westen Spirit espresso machine. Drip will be made at a slick pour-over bar with flush-mounted Acaia scales, with offerings rotating between three of their most popular blend selections—Giant Steps, Bella Donovan, and Three Africans. Together with single origin offerings from Kenya, Papua New Guinea, and Costa Rica, this will mark the first chance for many Japanese people to taste what Blue Bottle has to offer.
The Kiyosumi-Shirakawa area is a quiet, unassuming neighborhood about twenty minutes from Tokyo Station by train. It's a residential area, very suburban, sandwiched between two beautiful parks that are popular weekend spots for local families. You won't find any tall buildings or major shopping attractions here—just former lumber warehouses, and local folk living peaceful lives. With only a few days remaining before grand opening, there’s a palpable sense of transition in the air—one has to wonder what the neighborhood locals will think if lines of people start to stretch around the block, emanating from the curious new building filled with beaming blue-shirted staff, and marked with a simple drawing of a blue bottle.
It would seem that, at least for the next few weeks, the quiet, sleepy neighborhood of Kiyosumi-Shirakawa might not be so quiet, nor so sleepy. But then again, with all the new coffee shops making a home in the area and spreading their quality caffeinated messages, perhaps there aren’t that many people sleeping, anyway.