True coffee lovers used to shake like a leaf at the prospect of visiting Japan. It wasn’t that local coffee shops in this island nation were renowned for producing super-strength espressos that gave even the most seasoned drinker a bad case of the jitters, but rather that visitors were forced to go about their daily business in an environment that lacked a genuine coffee culture. This, after all, is a country that prides itself on the ubiquitous nature of vending machines selling canned coffee.
One person hoping to change all this is 28-year-old Australian Paul Bassett, who won the World Barista Championship in 2003. Paul Bassett Japan (financed by restaurant operator Y’s Table and trading house JALUX) opened three outlets bearing the former champion’s name in Tokyo last year, effectively ushering in a new era of premium coffee in Japan’s vibrant capital.
Located in Ginza, Shinjuku and Jiyugaoka, the three stores offer visitors a range of coffee that is extracted from high-grade beans that have been roasted at the right temperature in a tightly controlled environment. Paul Bassett roasts its beans twice a week to ensure freshness.
Former world patissier champion Hironobu Tsujiguchi contributes a fairly limited menu, which places a special emphasis on cakes and dessert.
The prices on Paul Bassett’s menus are perhaps a little expensive but not prohibitively so, with basic espressos at the Ginza and Jiyugaoka outlets costing ´500, cappuccinos ´600 and cakes from ´420-500 with full table service. The Shinjuku branch, by comparison, provides only counter service, and prices are cheaper as a result. An espresso at the Shinjuku outlet costs just ´280, while a cappuccino or a latte costs ´320 for a regular size and ´370 for a large.
As far as Bassett himself is concerned, though, the delectable slices and uplifting beverages that are enjoyed in the cozy environments afforded by all three locations are but a part and parcel of his greater goal: the creation of a dedicated coffee culture in Japan.
“I want to take coffee out of the realm it currently exists in (as a commodity status) and share its possibility with others so that they are able to see its sensory line,” Bassett says as he sips on a long black while seated at a counter table in the earthy basement setting of his store in Shinjuku. “I also want to explore the sensory boundaries of coffee’s quality.”
Bassett frequently talks about the need to start thinking about coffee in the same way as people talk about wine.
“The coffee industry is so young that it needs more people to be ambassadors of quality to help educate the masses so that at the end of the day consumers will expect nothing else,” he says. “It’s the same in every country but it’s particularly noticeable here (in Japan).”
Starbucks Coffee has launched more than 500 stores throughout Japan since opening in 1995, and consumers usually don’t think twice about paying ´290 for an espresso or ´310 for a small cappuccino at any one of the chain’s perpetually busy outlets. The service is quick and efficient, the marketing campaigns slick and sophisticated, and the drinks, well, drinkable. It’s a formula that has proven extremely successful over the past decade or so, so why on earth would the company change tack?
And, to be fair, Starbucks is not solely to blame for the development of this “quick-fix” mentality, and the finger can also be pointed squarely in the direction of local competitors such as Doutor. Should one of these rivals all of a sudden decide to revamp its approach to coffee production and focus on quality instead of quantity, its competition would be more than happy to pick up any slack.
But Bassett argues that coffee houses should take greater responsibility for the creation of a genuine coffee culture. The laid-back Australian even becomes quite animated when the conversation falls on the subject of baristas and the aura that sometimes surrounds them.
“Most of them aren’t professional Ð they’re milk-heaters and leaver pullers,” Bassett says. “The use of the word Ôbarista’ is used so loosely. Coffee chains should not be using the word Ôbarista’. A barista is a professional, someone who sees his or her trade in the same way that a sommelier or a chef does. It’s not about how many coffees you make in a day; it is about someone who is really crafting and sculpting that coffee experience.”
When In Rome, Drink
Coffee As The Romans Do
Bassett first discovered the richness of the culture that surrounds coffee during a visit to Italy in 2000, when he was just 22 years old. He had been working in his mother’s cafe through to the end of 1999, experimenting with grinds and developing a taste for what was to come, when he decided to head overseas in a bid to discover the things he felt passionate about.
His early Italian adventures as a wide-eyed and bushy-tailed youngster still hold a dear place in his heart, and he still favors an espresso served in Italy than one served in famous coffee-producing nations such as Brazil, Colombia and Tanzania. Bassett says Italy does not necessarily produce the best cup of coffee, but it does produce the most consistent quality. What’s more, he says, Italy has certain indescribable magical qualities that give it the edge.
“When you’re there you get so swept up in the culture of espresso that somehow you start to overlook quality,” he says. “It becomes more about the experience. For me, it’s important not to get lost in the science.”
Fast-forward three years and Bassett finds himself at the international pinnacle of coffee excellence, beating 27 other participants from all over the world to win the 2003 World Barista Championship in Boston. It was a marked improvement from his seventh placing at the same competition the year before, and required a lot more than simply being there to make up the numbers. To qualify, Bassett first had to win the Australian Barista Championship, which is a feat in itself given the pool of talent that exists Down Under. From there, he embarked on an intensive four-week period churning through 150 kilograms of coffee before heading to Boston and the Speciality Coffee Association of America Conference, which hosts the championship.
The event is spread over three days. The first two days are spent in heats whittling down the field to six nations. Then comes the all-important third day. Competitors are put in charge of three coffee stations and given 15 minutes to “prepare their environment.” After that, they have a further 15 minutes to make three beverages for four judges Ð four espressos, four cappuccinos and four creative “signature” beverages. The signature beverage is, essentially, any type of non-alcoholic, coffee-flavored drink. It’s a chance for the competitor to strut their stuff.
On that fateful day, Bassett prepared a Bacino Ð a deft combination of honey, cinnamon, chocolate, picao, vanilla, orange and a perfectly prepared shot of espresso Ð and impressed the judges so much he ended up winning comfortably. Nevertheless, Bassett himself expressed surprise at just how quickly he rose through the ranks to become the world’s best barista. The noticeable gap between his world title and his humble beginnings as a “leaver-puller” could not have been greater.
The 2007 World Barista Championship will be held at Tokyo Big Sight from July 31 to August 2. Bassett believes the event will have important repercussions for Japan’s coffee industry as a whole.
“It will be good for the industry, no doubt about it,” he says. “There’s definitely a subtle but strong undercurrent of specialty coffee here. The Japanese import most of the best-grade bean in the world. It’s ironic when there’s 500 Starbucks here at the same time but there are quality roasters here. I wish to channel that focus onto espresso.”
He is under no illusions that educating a public that has been raised on rations of instant coffee after the Second World War will be a true test of his patience.
“It’s baby steps,” he says, when asked to describe what is needed to create awareness in the local market. “You first need to find a staff that is passionate about coffee and keen to learn the fine detail about what it takes to make a good coffee. The development of one’s palate and cupping skills Ð at the end of the day that’s all that really matters from a sensory perspective. A good barista needs to recognize faults in the coffee, whether they are brewing faults or roasting faults etc, and being able to troubleshoot back from there.
“It’s all about delivering on what we’ve said we’re going to deliver on, and sharing that passion and knowledge with the consumer.”
After winning the world title almost four years ago, Bassett says he is still learning about his craft on a daily basis, and realizes it’s important as a barista to have an understanding of all the steps that are taken in the coffee process in order to produce that perfect cup. Last year he traveled to India to observe the robusta harvest, and did the same in Brazil in 2005.
Story by ELLOTT SAMUELS
From J SELECT Magazine, July 2007