That smell of fresh brew wafting over Kiyosumi Garden heralds the entrance of a major new player in Tokyo’s cafe scene.
By John Paul Catton
Blue Bottle Coffee is an Oakland-based company that has developed a strong following among coffee cognoscenti in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York—and is a firm with long-standing connections to Japan.
The 7000 square-foot flagship building, 10 minutes’ walk from Kiyosumi-Shirakawa Station, hosts an airy, spacious interior that holds the coffee bar and the roastery beyond. The roaster is a giant Loring SmartRoast machine that can handle 35 kg of beans at a time. There is also a glass-enclosed cupping room, used for tasting sessions where customers can learn more about the Blue Bottle production process.
What makes that process so special, and makes their coffee taste so different, is their dedicated approach to preparation. The magazine of high-end grocery store Southport Grocery and Cafe called them “coffee scientists,” and that’s a fair description. The company focuses on “single origin” beans, which in Japan’s case are from Indonesian plantations, and their policy is that that all beans are used or sold within 48 hours of roasting. Their online brewer’s guide mentions the Japanese concept of “kodawari,” which could be defined as “the uncompromising and relentless pursuit of perfection.”
The food menu is kept a closely guarded secret, but it’s created by pastry expert Caitlin Freeman, and you should be able to find their trademark waffles, shortbreads, snickerdoodles, cookies, and biscotti pizzetta—as well as some surprises exclusive to the Tokyo branch. This is not a franchising agreement; rather it’s a venture completely funded and managed by the American head office, to guarantee the visitor gets the authentic BB experience—down to the minimal interior aesthetic, and the caps and plaid shirts worn by the staff.
Founder and CEO James Freeman knows his traditions: the company name was inspired by Vienna’s very first coffee house, The Blue Bottle, which opened in 1686. Since the modern Blue Bottle Coffee opened in 2002, the company has always expressed an interest in Japan while opening cafes in Los Angeles, New York and around the Bay Area. As well as embracing the kodawari concept, Freeman is a long-term follower of the Japanese kissaten tradition, and many Blue Bottle cafes own cutting-edge equipment from Japanese manufacturers Hario and Oji. “We are a coffee company that’s rooted in the San Francisco Bay Area,” he says, “but also to this tradition of Japanese craftsmanship.”
Following quickly on the heels of the Koto-ku flagship, Blue Bottle’s Aoyama cafe opened on March 7, and a Blue Bottle kiosk will be included in the Tartine Bakery’s Daikanyama building, which is currently under construction. One word of warning: there are currently long lines of customers waiting to enter both cafes, so be prepared to spend close to an hour in the queue.
Pictures by Natalie Jacobsen