By Philip Kendall
A light jazz version of the 1940s hit, Beyond the Sea, tickles the back of my neck as I softly place my bag on an adjacent stool and slip my legs under the counter. While the lyrics hardly match the outside weather – a hot, 30°C afternoon in the middle of rainy season – the singer’s voice has a soft, agreeable lilt to it and the song soon pushes all thoughts of heat, humidity and perspiration from my mind.
The barista, Ms. Toriguchi, quietly welcomes me with a smile and, most likely having noticed my flushed appearance when I entered, admits that although the Coffee of the Day was a cheeky Guatemalan blend, I might prefer an iced coffee. I gladly accept the offer and watch as chunks of ice and rich, dark liquid tumble into a tall glass, reminding myself at the same time to sip it slowly and not gulp the whole thing down in one go.
This is my second visit to Coffee Roaster Plus 90° (purasu kyū-jū do), the newest café in fashionable Kichijōji, having just opened at the end of June, and I’m already a fan. I’m not a coffee connoisseur; I don’t insist on crumbling pre-roasted beans between my thumb and forefinger, I rarely claim to detect notes of cabernet-like crispness or to be able to observe playful piquancy, and I am guilty of drinking instant coffee several times a day. But I do love a good cup of Joe.
What sets ‘Plus 90 apart for me is that it’s entirely about the coffee experience as a whole, rather than how pretty it looks in the cup when it arrives at your table. The café’s name makes its intentions clear from the start: the beans are freshly roasted on site, ground mere moments before the coffee is brewed, and the water – kept at a very hot, but not boiling, 90°C – is poured carefully over the ground beans to produce each individual cup of coffee.
The system is not entirely dissimilar to selecting a lobster from the pot at a restaurant, or watching a skilled teppanyaki chef prepare, cook and serve live prawns, albeit without the pangs of guilt. When I order a cup of hot coffee, it is distinctly my cup of coffee; I decide on the beans I want, watch as they are ground and silently slid into a crisp white paper filter, catch a deep wave of aroma as the hot water is poured over them, then watch as the drips fall into my miniature glass coffee pot. The result is poured into my clean white ceramic coffee cup.
You’d expect, the café being situated in Kichijōji, and this being a distinctly tailor-made cup of coffee, to pay through the nose, but each of these speciality coffees costs just 270 yen. Latte fans can pick their drink of choice up for just 300 yen and, if you’re the kind with a sweet-tooth, there’s cheesecake and absolutely divine coffee jelly for the same price.
In stark contrast to the quick-gulp caffeine-injection image that coffee has steadily become synonymous with, I can’t help but feel calm and contemplative sitting here in ‘Plus 90, absorbing the music and watching the gentle, methodical actions that go into preparing their coffee. Perhaps when – as happens every so often – scientists launch studies to pinpoint that magical ingredient which purportedly makes a cup of coffee a day good for your health, they’re barking up the wrong tree; perhaps the real reason a cup of good honest coffee keeps you healthy is that it is, fundamentally, a slow, calm experience.
The beans are ground steadily and the water boiled to the perfect temperature to avoid scalding it. The water is poured slowly. It drips. It takes time. No-one’s going to have a heart attack brewing a good cup of coffee. By all reasoning, a good barista should live to be a centenarian.
Half-way through my ice coffee, the manager, Mr Takahashi, slides a tiny white paper cup towards me.
“Try that,” he nods, “it’s a new Brazilian blend.”
I take a good, long sniff (do large foreign noses give us an unfair advantage?). The liquid is nearly black in colour, but the aroma curiously sharp and light. I sip cautiously, my eyes scanning my surroundings as I swallow, as if looking for answers on the walls. He’s piqued my curiosity. I hop off my stool and march over to the small display area at the front of the shop where packets and jars of roasted beans sit. Printed information cards next to each blend show the usual information – the origin of the beans, their respective flavours and so on – but above these I find photos of the people who grow them and their farmland.
Before I can get my next question out, Mr Takahashi skips around the counter and pulls a small book off a shelf. A quick blur of turning pages later, his forefinger comes down on a picture of the Brazilian flag. He hands me the book and I stand there in the doorway to the shop, reading like a high-school student at a convenience store comic-book rack. In one of the photos a man holds out a hand, in his palm a small pile of chalky-grey ovals that look like sunflower seeds.
To my left, in the one corner of the shop I have yet to stick my nose into, sit large white plastic tubs. They look heavy, and in stark contrast to the rest of the shop this one corner is cold, feeling almost industrial.
A huge, shiny coffee roaster covered in levers and dials stands to their right. Mr Takahashi pulls the lid from one of the tubs, marked ‘Ethiopia’ in katakana, and tilts it toward me. Inside I find what Mr Takahashi tells me are unroasted beans – they are the same powdery colour as those I saw in the book moments before.
“Give it a smell,” he tells me. I’m half a lungful in when he adds, with a chuckle, “Doesn’t smell very good, does it?” I look at the beans and back at the photo in the book.
“If you hadn’t told me that was coffee,” I admit, “I’d have had no idea…”
None of this is for show. The reason I’m already so in love with ‘Plus 90 isn’t because I want to be among the coffee elite, nor because I want to snub Starbucks and the other high street chains that I often frequent. I’m simply enraptured by the unique simplicity that’s to be found here. There are no cover-ups, or syrups or froths. There are no prefabricated hollow wooden crates with ‘coffee’ stamped on them in broken black print. No plastic cups or creations that look like they could be served at Baskin Robbins.
And there is not an ounce of pretension to be found here. There’s no snobbery, and there are no stone-faced baristas pouring coffee with a level of solemnity reserved exclusively for catholic priests conducting mass in Latin.
Coffee Roaster Plus 90°C offers coffee in an environment where you can enjoy it most. It’s surprisingly cheap, undeniably delicious, and while the staff have all the coffee knowledge and expertise in the world, they’re also perfectly happy to chat weather, pop culture and TV. They even serve reprobates like me.
Coffee Roaster Plus 90°C is open every day except Tuesdays. Take-out on all drinks is available.
Address: Tokyo-to, Musashino Honmachi 2-17-2