Is Japan starting to embrace an espresso culture?
Certified Q grader and representative of Single O Japan, Yu Yamamoto, speaks to Matt Haw about Japanese coffee shop culture and its widespread adoption of espresso.
In less than 150 years, Japan’s coffee market has grown to such an extent that it now ranks among the top ten largest in the world.
However, relative to many other consuming countries, Japan was late to embrace café culture, with coffee first arriving there towards the end of the 19th century.
As the Japanese gradually developed a taste for coffee, small cafés known as kissaten began springing up around the country. Less austere than traditional tea houses, kissaten were envisioned as more relaxed spaces that served hand-brewed filter coffee.
According to Yu Yamamoto, Japan Country Manager for the Australia-based coffee roaster Single O, there’s a good reason Japanese consumers tend to enjoy dark roast filter coffee.
When green beans were first imported to Japan, he says, they would spend a long time on ships, often going “twice over the equator”. As such, the beans were often already stale or rancid when they arrived in Japan.
“Early Japanese coffee roasters tended to roast darker and chose to filter with paper or other materials, to get a cleaner, sweeter coffee,” Yu elaborates.
This particular version of Japan’s coffee history contrasts with the narrative that kissaten were founded as places of quality and craftsmanship. Simply put, that’s because Japanese roasters back then were not what they are today. These days, Japan has embraced specialty coffee, and many of its roasters are renowned for purchasing high-scoring coffees.
For much of its history, then, the development of coffee culture in Japan has had little to do with the quality of the coffee itself, and more to do with the ability of kissaten proprietors to roast and brew those beans in a way that’s palatable.
Following the advent of the espresso machine, European consumers began moving away from pre-industrialised ideas of coffee houses, giving rise to the fast and efficient espresso bar. Japan, however, has continued its long tradition of filter coffee. But is that changing?
Espresso certainly didn’t catch on in Japan as it did in Europe. From the outside, this suggests that kissaten were offering something uniquely Japanese which, according to Yu, persists to this day.
“Kissaten culture in Japan means people are sitting down to drink coffee, smoke, and read the newspaper or a magazine,” he explains. “People in kissaten are not generally in a rush, as compared to Italy with everyone coming to the bar in the morning to just have an espresso and go. It’s a totally different culture in Japan.”
For Yu, this is not only what distinguishes Japan’s coffee culture from European and Antipodean coffee cultures, but it’s also the principal reason for the country’s reluctance to embrace espresso culture.
However, when espresso did finally arrive at the end of the 20th century, it was at a time when consumer trends were shifting towards convenience and mass consumption.
“Starbucks changed Japanese coffee culture a lot,” Yamamoto notes. “People who normally don’t drink coffee started drinking caramel macchiato, latte, or other espresso-based coffee.”
He adds that it took a further decade for companies like Blue Bottle Coffee to find a way to normalise espresso drinking – by uniting it with elements of kissaten coffee service.
Blue Bottle’s success – along with advances in roasting and the improved quality of green beans associated with the specialty coffee movement – encouraged other Western coffee companies to expand into the Japanese market, further popularising espresso.
It’s also no surprise that Japan’s successes at the World Barista Championships have put espresso in the spotlight. In fact, at least one Japanese barista placed in the top ten of the event every year from 2011-2018, and Hidenori Izaki won outright in 2014.
Not only has this elevated the art of espresso making in Japan to the level of filter coffee, but Yu believes it’s “been good for the young baristas in Japan”, as it’s shown them the creative potential of espresso.
Will Japanese espresso culture evolve or fade?
Ultimately, Yu is unsure as to whether Japan will ever truly embrace espresso culture.
For example, the pandemic encouraged customers to explore their neighbourhoods. This brought them back to the local kissaten, resulting in a new-found interest in the slower-paced culture of hand-brewed filter coffee.
He also believes that filter coffee is too ingrained in the daily lives of Japanese people.
“When [people] need coffee, I think they still want to drink filter coffee,” he says. “Although younger generations have developed a taste for espresso, it is still very, very hard in Japan to run a café with only an espresso machine and espresso-based coffee.”
Espresso is still viewed as something of a novelty or occasional drink, even in the form of lattes and cappuccinos. Demand is so volatile, in fact, that Yu says a lot of espresso ends up being wasted.
“Yes, we can make [espresso] much faster, but not many people are drinking this kind of coffee,” he explains. “So, from a double shot, we will often only use one shot, and when this happens again and again, it wastes a lot of coffee.”
These days, top-end superautomatic espresso machines are incredibly efficient and can brew single shots at the press of a button. Furthermore, models like the Carimali Bluedot Power can brew both espresso and filter coffee, and this would help Japanese businesses appeal to a wider market.
Rather than trying to convert the Japanese to espresso, Single O has co-invented new batch-brew serving technology to deliver faster filter coffee service.
Their café in Hamacho offers batch brew filter coffee on an elegant tap system, which means customers can get the highest quality filter coffee on the spot. With this new technology, Yamamoto feels very much like he is “introducing filter coffee to Japan again.”
If more roasters begin to adopt this approach – even in the case of specialty coffee – espresso culture doesn’t seem to stand a chance.
Effectively, businesses will no longer need to choose between espresso and filter coffee, and even the most traditional kissaten could soon be embracing espresso culture as a result.