2014 has been a good year for Rec Coffee in Fukuoka—its new Kencho-Higashi cafe opened this past March, co-founders Yoshikazu Iwase and Osamu Kitazoe both made the SCAJ Barista Championship finals, and to top it off, Iwase took first place—a tremendous achievement for the young coffee company. And though their achievements of late have made them more prominent in the Japanese coffee scene, Iwase and Kitazoe’s interest in coffee goes back to their college days.
“I’ve been interested in coffee since a long time ago,” said Iwase. “I started out watching and experimenting while in college, but I didn’t encounter specialty coffee until 2005, when I started working part-time at a place focused on espresso. Then everything changed. It was a kind of reverse culture shock—the incredible flavor, the refreshing acidity, the amazing taste of the clean cup. I was hooked. I shared my experiences with Kitazoe, and we went from there.”
“When we started,” said Kitazoe, “we would roast at home on a frying pan. I remember the two of us getting excited about espresso shots with those beans. We’d have friends over and they’d buy coffee from us. That’s where the roots of Rec Coffee were born.”
This shared love of coffee eventually intertwined with their desire do something fun with their lives and careers.
“Kitazoe and I both went to the same university. We both wanted to do something interesting and exciting, so we didn’t take the conventional path of looking for full-time employment. Instead we worked at cafes and restaurants, saving money. In 2008, we made the leap into making specialty coffee our career.”
“I was 27, and working at a restaurant at the time,” said Kitazoe, “but after talking it over with Iwase, I quit almost immediately. We were both in love with the world of specialty coffee. Iwase taught me more about cupping and coffee machinery, and we got into selling coffee.”
This first foray saw the two traveling around Japan in the Rec Coffee Truck.
“We put the money we’d saved into our coffee truck. With it we could deliver specialty coffee to people from morning to night. At the time, we thought it would be easier to spread specialty coffee by bringing it to people instead of having them come to us.”
Success with the coffee truck eventually blossomed into the Rec Coffee cafe in Yakuin-Ekimae, then a coffee counter at FAAM, and more recently a cafe in Kencho-Higashi. And though many see specialty coffee in Japan as something of a new frontier, Iwase and Kitazoe see it as a continuation and development of a culture Japan has long valued.
“Since long ago Japan has had a kissaten culture. In those old cafes, shop owners slowly made cups of coffee, and with it provided customers both space and time in which to relax and enjoy their beverage. More recently, around the year 2000, kissaten culture saw a generational change. We’ve taken up the mantle of this culture, and we provide a specialty coffee experience. We feel like more and more people here are now after a more appealing, higher-quality coffee.”
And as for where the two see Rec Coffee going in the future?
“Our goal is the same now as when we started—to spread good coffee to as many people as we can, even if it’s just one cup at a time. Because we baristas are in direct contact with customers, we’re most happy when our coffee brings a smile to a customer’s face—this means understanding processing, roasting, and extraction. We also want our work to show our respect for the producers of the coffee. To really reach as many people as we can, we want to continue putting energy into educating ourselves, our staff, and our partners. We hope someday to see a coffee community of cooperative growth.”
You can see what that vision for the future looks like for yourself in April when Iwase represents Japan at the 2015 World Barista Championships in Seattle, WA.
Hengtee Lim (@Hent03) is a Sprudge contributor based in Tokyo. Read more Hengtee Lim on Sprudge.
Photos courtesy of Rec Coffee.