About Life Coffee Brewers is part of the small Onibus Coffee group which has its own roastery in Nakameguro, although it also serves coffee from two other Tokyo roasters, Switch Coffee Tokyo and Amameria Espresso. No more than a coffee stand at the top (western) end of Dōgenzaka in Shibuya, it’s something of an institution and a favourite of many visitors to the city. Serving mostly takeaway customers (so don’t forget to bring your own cup), you can stand at the counter or sit on one of two benches down the side. There’s also a semi-secret sheltered standing-room only area inside, which is handy if it’s raining.
For such a small spot, About Life has a large output. There’s a concise with/without milk espresso menu, with the Onibus house-blend used for milk drinks and blends from the other two roasters available as espresso/Americano. However, what’s really impressive is the selection of six single origins, two from each roaster. These can be had as an espresso (no milk) or as a pour-over through the V60. All the coffee, espresso and pour-over, can be had hot, or with ice. The selection of single origins is seasonal, changing every two to three months.
Koffee Mameya, which literally translates as Coffee Beans, is something of a name in speciality coffee circles. The successor to the famed Omotesando Koffee, a legendary pop-up coffee shop that once stood on the same physical site, going to Koffee Mameya is somewhat akin to going on a pilgrimage for the speciality coffee lover.
Technically Koffee Mameya isn’t a coffee shop; it’s a retailer with a tasting bar where you can try the beans before you buy. It’s also tiny, an almost cube-shaped, wood-clad, windowless box with no seats, just a counter at the back and, more often than not, a queue out of the door.
Koffee Mameya works with seven roasters, four from Japan and one each from Denmark, Hong Kong and Melbourne. There are up to 25 different beans available at any one time (there were 18 choices on offer when I visited) arranged by roast profile from light to dark. Since Koffee Mameya is all about the taste, there’s no milk here (and definitely no sugar), with the coffee available to try as either pour-over through the Kalita Wave or espresso, using a customised Synesso Hydra built into the counter-top. There are also cold-brew samples on hand.
Japan has a wide, varied coffee culture stretching back to, I believe, the inter-war years. Although Japan has moved with the times, accepting and adapting modern trends in coffee, such as lighter roasting, the old traditions live on. On my first visit in 2017, I wrote about Café de L’Ambre, a traditional Japanese kissaten. I also visited Chatei Hatou (once I’d found it!) but didn’t have a chance to write it up. Since it’s just around the corner from my hotel, it was another place I made a beeline for on my return to Tokyo this week.
The traditional Japanese kissaten is more akin to a bar than a modern coffee shop. Both Chatei Hatou and Café de L’Ambre are long, low, windowless buildings where patrons are still allowed to smoke (although on both my visits Chatei Hatou wasn’t too smoky, perhaps due to the air-conditioning). Only serving pour-over coffee, the best seats are at the counter, where you can watch the coffee being made on a near-continuous basis. Alternatively, there are a number of tables, more cosy two-person ones and some larger, ten-person ones, in the relatively spacious interior. Finally, there’s an impressive range of cakes to tempt you.
Onibus Coffee is a small chain of four coffee shops, including this, the roastery, in the residential district of Nakameguro. That said, it won’t be the roastery for much longer, since there are moves afoot to relocate the Diedrich roaster from the cramped space in the rear of the store to a dedicated site. Until then, enjoy the spectacle of watching the roaster in action while you sip your coffee.
There’s outdoor seating along the side of the small, two-storey building, or you can sit upstairs, where, instead of the roaster, you can watch the trains rattling by, Onibus backing onto the elevated train tracks of the nearby station. You can’t quite touch the passing trains, but it’s close. It’s a busy line, so you’re never far from the clickety-clack of the next train (every minute or two). Personally, I enjoy the sound of the trains going by, but others might find it off-putting.
Onibus serves a simple espresso menu using one of its blends, while there’s a choice of several single-origins on pour-over through the V60. There’s also a small selection of cake, along with retail bags of the coffee and a small range of home coffee equipment.
If you’ve been following the latest series on Brian’s Travel Spot, you’ll know that I spent the last two weeks of April in Thailand, departing on the Sunday of the London Coffee Festival. The first instalment of this Travel Spot covered my flight over with British Airways. I spent a week in Bangkok, before catching the sleeper to Chiang Mai, where I spent another week exploring its awesome speciality coffee scene. I returned on the sleeper to spend three days in Bangkok, with the two train trips forming the second and third instalments (written and published while I was out in Thailand). Meanwhile, today’s Travel Spot, the fourth and final instalment in the series, covers my return flight on Tuesday 1st May.
What I’ve underplayed in all the posts so far is the state of my back. When I flew out, my back was cranky, but basically okay. It got worse during my time in Bangkok, but was still basically okay. However, while I was in Chiang Mai, it got really bad, forcing me to take the sleeper back. By the time I was due to fly home, I could hardly sit down, leaving me dreading the 13 hour flight…
My travel schedule for the first four months of the year has been pretty hectic, verging on the brutal, although it was partly self-inflicted. This kicked off with two month-long visits to the USA, starting with a trip to Miami and Phoenix and followed by another that saw me travel from New England to Arizona by train.
Since then it’s calmed down a bit, so I thought that before I jet off on my next adventure (a week today I should have just arrived in Japan) I really ought to finish writing up the previous one. This saw me spend three days at the London Coffee Festival, head home on the Saturday evening and then turn around on Sunday to fly out to Thailand for the first time.
I didn’t spend long in Hanoi, at the end of my Vietnam trip, so didn’t have much time to explore. I also didn’t have a long list of coffee shops to visit when I arrived. That I found Gấu Coffee Roasters was entirely down to The Caffinet, which in turn I only found following a recommendation from Oriberry Coffee. Sometimes all you need is a list of one…
On a busy road in the northeast of Hanoi’s old city, you really need to know where Gấu Coffee Roasters is, although if you look in the window, you’ll probably be drawn in, particularly if you see the roaster all the way at the back of the long, thin store. All the coffee’s roasted here, with a range of origins, plus home-grown Vietnamese Arabica. There’s a blend on espresso, with multiple single-origins on pour-over through a variety of methods, plus traditional Vietnamese coffee.
Shin Coffee is a small, local roaster/coffee shop chain in the Vietnamese capital, Ho Chi Minh City, which I discovered on my visit there this time last year, it having been recommended to me by Vietnam Coffee Republic. This is one of two branches a few blocks apart in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City, where you’ll also find the likes of The Workshop Coffee. Unlike the branch on Nguyễn Thiệp, which is purely a coffee shop, this is the original, dating from 2015, and doubles as the roastery, with a pair of roasters behind a glass wall at the back.
Shin Coffee seems to specialise in long, thin spaces and this is no different. Although not quite as elegant as Nguyễn Thiệp, it’s pretty close and has a very similar look, feel and design, as well as offering the same coffee choices and menu. Shin only roasts Arabica beans, with a range of Vietnamese blends and a few single-origins from both Vietnam and around the world. There’s a traditional espresso-based menu (using a blend of Ethiopian and Vietnamese coffee), along with decaf, plus there’s filter through V60, Syphon, Aeropress and Cafetiere, as well as traditional Vietnamese filter coffee.
This time last year, I was approaching the end of my Vietnamese trip and, reaching my final stop, Hanoi, I found a small but vibrant coffee scene. My hotel had been carefully chosen, in the heart of the old city and around the corner from both Oriberry Coffee and today’s Coffee Spot, RuNam Bistro, although back then it went by the name Càfê RuNam. A national chain, I had somehow missed its four branches in Ho Chi Minh City, including the one on the same street as Shin Coffee. The Hanoi branch came highly recommended though, by no higher authority than both Fancy A Cuppa? and Bex of Double Skinny Macchiato.
RuNam Bistro is a high-end coffee-and-food spot, offering table service and high-quality food from breakfast through lunch to dinner, all accompanied by Vietnamese-grown coffee, roasted in-house, and served in the most elegant surroundings of any coffee shop I visited on my trip. The coffee is available as either espresso or traditional Vietnamese cup-top filter (cà phê phin). There’s a dark-roasted house blend of Arabica and Robusta beans, plus some 100% Arabica beans, including decaf (a rarity in Vietnam), but you have to know to ask, otherwise you will get the house blend.
Vietnam Coffee Republic is small chain (of two), part of a growing band of speciality coffee shops in the centre of Ho Chi Minh City. Like the nearby The Workshop Coffee and the various branches of Shin Coffee, Vietnam Coffee Republic is both roaster and coffee shop. There’s a large coffee shop just around the corner, while this, the VCR Bar & Showroom, is where all the roasting takes place, plus it’s a coffee shop in its own right.
Sheltering under the towering edifice of the Roseland Corp Hotel, the VCR Bar & Showroom is easily missed. There’s more seating outside, a lovely area set back from the road, than there is inside, a wide, shallow space with the roaster at one end behind the counter.
When it comes to coffee, which is all grown in Vietnam, the VCR Bar & Showroom has the same menu as its big sibling, serving four principle blends containing varying ratios of Robusta and Arabica beans, plus a single-origin. These are available as espresso or filter, with options including V60, Aeropress, cafetiere and syphon, plus traditional Vietnamese filter coffee. If you’re hungry, there’s a salad bar, with a range of tasty salads on offer.