Monday, March 10, 2014
I am living in the Land of Tea. Tea in Japan is more than just a hot beverage; it has deep cultural significance that goes well beyond infusing leaves in boiling water. One could go so far as to say all Japanese culture grows outward from tea.
But I'm not here to talk about tea. That is a subject much too weighty for a Gaijin of 5 months to discuss intelligently. I'm here to talk about coffee, Japanese coffee.
Inoda Coffee predates Starbucks by more than 30 years. Founded in Kyoto in 1940, there are 11 locations across Japan, compared with Starbucks 20,000+ across the globe. But I'm not here to compare Inoda and Starbucks (because there is no comparison).
Inoda harks back to an era before paper to-go cups, when attention to detail was paramount. I have not been to the original Inoda, but the cafe on Sanjo-dori has a lovely mid-century charm to it with rosewood paneled walls, over-sized swivel stools in chocolate brown vinyl, and a sleek stainless steel kitchen. The staff behind the large circular "kaunta" all wear white jackets with black bow ties and paper forage hats. They do not chit-chat with the customers or among themselves.
It reminds me a bit of Cafe de Flore in Paris with its monogrammed cups, saucers, glasses and ashtrays. In fact, like the Flore, you can purchase any of these items. But you will not hear the waiters shouting, "Un express!" at Inoda because there is not an espresso machine to be found here. This is classic drip coffee poured one order at a time with great care. What?! Robert Wallace, the Cappuccino Kid, drinking drip coffee?! This, I assure you, is no ordinary drip coffee. It is not your home Mr. Coffee maker or your industrial Bunn machines. This is pure, freshly roasted, perfectly brewed, gracefully poured goodness. I might even say the Inoda "German-style" coffee is the best cup I've had anywhere.
I am guessing of course, but besides an obviously superior bean and excellent roast, it is the exactness of temperature that makes this cup of coffee so good. The staff go to great lengths to make sure your cup of coffee is served at the optimum temperature. There are half a dozen burners in the central island. There are old-fashioned enamel coffee pots on some with a low, even flame and coffee ready to pour for the customer. There are large pots of water just under boiling on others. This water has two purposes. It is ladled carefully through fabric filters containing precise measurements of ground coffee into giant enamel jugs. This in turn is poured as needed into the smaller, more manageable coffee pots. The hot water is also used to heat the cups before the coffee is poured. Cups are gently dunked in the water. The specialty blends, like my German-style, are made by pouring hot, but not boiling, water through paper filters into small glass pots, which are also pre-heated with hot water.
Everything is done with rhythmic precision to maintain that perfect temperature. It may sound complicated, but it is really incredibly simple, and totally Japanese.