About Life Coffee Brewers

Detail taken from the menu board outside About Life Coffee Brewers in ShibuyaAbout 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.

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Koffee Mameya

Four of the potential 25 coffees on offer at Koffee Mameya in Tokyo.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.

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Chatei Hatou

My filter coffee, served in a gorgeous cup at Chatei Hatou, a traditional Japanese kissaten in Toyko.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.

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Onibus Coffee, Nakameguro

A chalk drawing from the wall upstairs in Onibus Coffee.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.

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Blue Bottle Coffee, Aoyama

The remains of my single-origin Kenyan pour-over in a glass mug, as served in Blue Bottle in the Aoyama district of Tokyo.Bluebottle is something of an institution in California, with numerous outlets in Los Angeles and the Bay Area. From its base, Bluebottle has spread both east, with branches on the east coast, ranging from Miami to Boston, and west, where it’s crossed the Pacific Ocean to Japan, with a solitary branch in Kyoto and seven in Tokyo.

My relationship with Bluebottle in the US has been a bit hit and miss, liking some places, but not others. However, based on my limited experience in Tokyo, I’m smitten by Bluebottle in Japan. The branch in Aoyama was around the corner from my office when I visited in April last year, one of a cluster of excellent coffee shops, all within easy walking distance of the office, that include Japanese café/roaster Sarutahiko Coffee and two further foreign-influenced coffee shops, Coutume and Café Kitsuné, both of whom have their roots in Paris.

Bluebottle serves a single-origin and blend on espresso, with another single-origin and blend on pour-over, plus two more single-origins on syphon. There’s also a concise breakfast/lunch menu and a selection of cakes. Of all the places I visited in Japan, it is the most American in terms of service and style.

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Kurasu

A creamy cappuccino, served in a white cup on a small wooden tray at Kurasu in Kyoto.A relative newcomer to Kyoto’s speciality coffee scene, Kurasu only opened in 2016. It seems a tad harsh to call it a chain, but shortly after my visit, in 2017, a second branch of Kurasu opened. In Singapore. While an excellent coffee shop in its own right, Kurasu also champions Japanese coffee products, such as pour-over filters, kettles and crockery, operating a worldwide mail order business, which is where Kurasu had its roots, starting in Australia in 2013, before the owner returned to his home town in 2016.

A five-minute walk from Kyoto’s main station, the coffee shop is a modest affair, long, and thin, with the counter on one side and minimal seating at the back. There’s a house blend from Single O, an Australian-based roaster, while the pour-over and batch-brew feature single-origins from roasters around Japan, who change every month. There’s also a small selection of cake.

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Nem Coffee & Espresso

A lovely shot of the house-blend at Nem Espresso & Coffee in Tokyo, served in a classic white cup.The delightful Nem Coffee & Espresso is definitely the hidden gem of Tokyo’s speciality coffee scene. Located south of the Arisugawa-no-miya Memorial Park, Nem is tucked away down a narrow, pedestrian alley, so much so that you think you’re walking into a residential neighbourhood to visit someone’s house, which is not as far from the truth as it seems. The coffee shop is on the ground floor of an old house, painstakingly renovated/converted by the owners, a married couple who live upstairs, Nem opening for business in May 2016. The result is a small, but delightful space, with windows front and back, with a very Japanese feel to the architecture, but a very western feel to the coffee shop itself.

Talking of coffee, Nem has a concise menu, drinks split between “black” and “with milk”. There’s a house-blend on espresso (from Switch Coffee) and two single-origins plus a decaf (from Nozy Coffee) on filter through the cafetiere. There’s also tea and hot chocolate, plus a small food menu, with a choice of two cakes. Small is definitely the name of the game at Nem, with all the food being cooked to order in a compact, open kitchen behind the counter.

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Vermillion Café

A lovely espresso at Vermillion Cafe in Kyoto, made using its bespoke house-blend and served in a classic cup.Vermillion is a chain of precisely two in Kyoto, with an espresso bar next to the Inari train station and, five minutes’ walk away, by a large pond at the foot of Mount Inariyama, is the Vermillion Café, subject of today’s Coffee Spot. I didn’t spend long enough in Kyoto, Japan’s old Imperial capital, nor did I get to many coffee shops, but with my visit to Vermillion, I definitely saved the best until last!

Vermillion Café has a small outside seating area at the front (northern) end, which catches the evening sun, while inside, it’s long and relatively wide, with a couple of large tables. However, the best part is at the back, where the south-facing wooden terrace overlooks the pond. Here you’ll find the best views and perhaps my favourite spot for coffee in the whole of Japan.

Vermillion serves coffee roasted by the local Weekenders Coffee, with a bespoke house-blend on espresso and a choice of a blend or single-origin on pour-over through the V60, all of which can be had hot or over ice. There’s also a limited range of tea, beer and soft drinks, plus, if you’re hungry, a small selection of sandwiches and cake.

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Glasgow Coffee Festival 2017 Part II

The seven coffees which I brought back from Japan for a cupping at the Glasgow Coffee Festival.Welcome to the second of my detailed write-ups from the third Glasgow Coffee Festival, which took place earlier this month. My original intention was to split this into two parts, but events have overtaken me, so I’m going to split it into three instead, with Part III rounding-up the local coffee scene, new equipment launches & everything else.

In Part I, I looked at the venue itself, the wonderful, soaring hall that is the Briggait, before going on to look at those exhibitors who had travelled from outside of Scotland to attend. This week, I’m continuing the theme of those who had travelled a long way to get to the festival with someone who could argue that he’d come the furthest. Me.

Exactly one week before the festival, I’d been in Japan, sent on a mission by Lisa of festival organisers (I still refuse to call them curators), Dear Green Coffee. My task? To collect coffee from various Japanese roasters for a cupping at the festival. Well, there was also the small matter of a business meeting, plus a week spent travelling around Japan afterwards, which might have had something to do with my going out there. However, I prefer the first explanation…

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Sarutahiko Coffee Omotesandō

The Sarutahiko Coffee logo from the front of one of its bags of coffee.Sarutahiko Coffee is a small, but growing, coffee shop/roaster chain in Tokyo. This branch shares space with a bookshop and travel agent in HIS, a multi-level shop on a quiet street near my office, one of several excellent coffee options within a five minutes’ walk. It’s also another recommendation from the Commodities Connoisseur (although he visited the flagship Ebisu branch).

Sarutahiko roasts all its own coffee, a considerable selection of which is on sale at the Omotesandō branch. There is a variety of espresso-based drinks, either hot or over ice, while there’s a large range of single-origins (six) and blends (five) available as pour-over using the V60. Although there’s plenty of seating, the Omotesandō branch is rather unusual in that it only serves coffee in takeaway cups, so be sure to bring your own.

Sarutahiko has several neat features. For example, although it’s counter service, you are given a playing card when you order, with an identical playing card being put down on the counter with your coffee, so you know which one is yours. On the retail side, each coffee has a card with tasting and origin notes, with the card’s colour indicating the darkness of the roast. Genius!

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