Searching for a good cup of coffee is about more than just finding the right bean. Shana Graves takes a look at some of the people shaking up the scene in Tokyo and finds some beautiful brews – and some competitive spirit.

In the world of cafés there are two kinds of baristas: those who make coffee and those who create it. If you take your morning fix seriously, rather than hitting up a ¥100 vending machine for a Tommy Lee Jones endorsed drink, I suggest seeking out the creative barista. It really is in your best interests.

It may seem as though Tokyo has all of it’s bases covered when it comes to brewing up fast and fresh coffee but there’s one aspect of this caffeinated culture that’s just beginning to heat up. Latte art has been developing and growing all over the world since the 1980s but here in Tokyo the scene has only recently started to bloom.

A toasty snowman at Seven Colors, Shimokitazawa

When Canadian coffee expert BLENZ brought its signature beverages to town it also brought with it artists and, eventually, competitions.

Every year BLENZ hosts a latte art competition, pitting the best baristas against each other in an awe-inspiring display of poise and talent. The competition is not limited to artists working in the coffee industry, hobbyists are also invited to join.

The judges for the BLENZ Free Pour Latte Art Competition use strict criteria when grading competitors. Art (originality), definition (contrast of espresso and milk) and balance are the three main categories on the critics’ scorecard and scores range from one to ten points in each category. Competitors are not only judged on their art skills but on their hygienic practices as well.

Forgetting to clean your steam wand or wasting more than 1 gram of coffee can cost you points, not to mention the entire competition.

This year’s competition was held at the BLENZ Aoyama location on April 15th. Out of some 200 entries only 22 made the final cut. First prize was awarded to Shin Koyama, of Café One in Motoyama, who managed to impress the judges and score highly in all three categories.

Now before you run out in search of latte art you first have to understand what you’re looking for. There are two kinds of latte art: free pouring and etching. Some baristas may incorporate both techniques but the most commonly found (and more respected of the two) is free pour, which requires a skillful, steady pour of steamed milk into an espresso shot. Etching, on the other hand, is more like drawing (or sketching).

Zoka Coffee

If latte art is something that peaks your curiosity, there are lessons available to non-baristas who want to learn this fine coffee art. Zoka Coffee in Mejiro offer two-hour latte art lessons twice a week (in Japanese) at ¥3,500 a piece or for ¥1,500 you can join a larger class and receive 10 minutes of practice time.

Of course there is no guarantee you’ll pour like a professional after just two hours but at least you can say you tried. Like any art form, latte art takes years – and a lot of coffee and milk to perfect. If you’d rather drink your coffee than design it, Zoka Coffee also has some great tasting espresso and specialty coffees.

The current generation of coffee lovers has opened up a new realm of caffeinated beverages that leaves little room for traditional style kissaten; no room in the big cities, at least.

In Tokyo you’ll find a Starbucks on almost every corner, sometimes two but scattered throughout the city are the independent coffee brewers who care more about quality than quantity. These are the places that are sometimes harder to find, the back alley coffee shops that are well worth the search.

Players in the Tokyo brewing game include everyone from world champion latte artists to self-proclaimed hippies. Everyone wants a piece of that bean.

Who needs an office? Streamer Coffee.

Who needs an office? Streamer Coffee.

Although it’s only been open since 2010 Streamer Coffee Company has quickly become one of the cool kids in town. Osaka-born owner, Hiroshi Sawada, was a star long before opening his hip café. In 2008 Sawada won the Milrock Latte Art championship, which comes with a sizeable monetary prize. For those of you who are not familiar with this contest, it is the Olympic Games of the coffee world and only the best of the best can compete.

Since opening Streamer Coffee, both Sawada and the Streamer brand have collaborated with several companies to create unique items that are available only through the Streamer online shop. The most recent alliance was with Chari & Co. but Sawada also has a long-standing relationship with Espresso Parts. Hiroshi Sawada has also published Free Pour Latte Art Handbook for those interested in his techniques and gadget recommendations. Streamer Coffee Company is the place to go for great tasting coffee made by highly skilled baristas and, of course, for free Wi-Fi.

Bear Pond Espresso

For a more modest approach to coffee, Bear Pond Espresso has it covered. Bear Pond Espresso opened its main café in Shimo Kitazawa in 2009 and serves up some of the best espresso the city has to offer.

What sets Bear Pond apart from other coffee shops is not the minimalist design of the inside of the café or the fact that only the owner, Katsuyuki Tanaka (pictured, left), is permitted to pull shots; it’s the pride that Mr. Tanaka takes in his craft.

“Making great coffee is like driving. You need a car (coffee maker), gas (beans) and a driver (barista).” Tanaka says the quality of all the variables – not just one or two – must exceed expectations or the end result is bad coffee; something you will not get at Bear Pond. If you find yourself at Bear Pond, try their signature drink, “Dirty”.

The “Dirty”, a cold beverage made from two shots of espresso and cold milk, is more akin to a refreshing glass of chocolate milk than an iced coffee. (You can see one in the main image at the top) There is a complexity to the flavors that occur which can only be explained by ones own palate.

Coffee should not taste like the beans were roasted for too long; it should be rich with flavour and as complex as a fine wine. If your coffee tastes of scorched rubber or vinegar and not nutty, chocolaty or anything pleasant, you’re in the wrong café.

Written by Shana Graves

All photographs by the writer except top image, courtesy of Bear Pond.