Coffee. It is what fuels much of the world’s adult population every day.
Made generic by instant coffee, made exclusive and enjoyable for mass consumption by Starbucks, and affordable by others, coffee has become a commodity, much like diesel or gasoline. Unfortunately, most commercially available coffee has just about as much character or appeal. Fuel for the body? Check. Something that has the finesse of a Darjeeling first flush or a Gyokuro green? No.
Lost in the interminable discussions about the merits of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee vs. a cup at McDonald’s is the fact that coffee is, after all, a plant product, unique in as many ways as the regions it grows in – this reality is all too often lost and forgotten beneath the forces of commoditization. To taste what good coffee has to offer, take a trip to your local Peet’s or Intelligentsia – a well made espresso will reveal much. For an even more dedicated and specialized approach, visit one of the many coffee boutiques that dot any metropolis. In order to fully appreciate the full breadth of the coffee experience, many [but not nearly enough] make a pilgrimage to this little store tucked away in the back lanes of Ginza, Tokyo.
Completely invisible to the shopping hordes, I doubt its location has any impact on its performance as a business. Quite possibly, this is because it is run less like a business and more like a temple to coffee – its creation, its finessing, its preparation, its consumption. With a full range of current crop and aged coffees on display at this atelier, and every cup ground and brewed to order, it is the only establishment I know of that allows one access to about thirty aged coffees – going back all the way to 1970 for a particular South American variety. Seemingly similar in appeal to a vintage whisky or brandy, would this live up to its promise of a heady brew?
“Coffee Only” proclaims the sign outside CAFE DE L’AMBRE . The same message is clearly in evidence within. The store is minimally lit, a sparse interior with well worn wood countertops and seating. A place at the main counter affords one a full view of the process of preparation. It also brings one into close contact with the proprietors / brewmasters / coffee consultants. No gleaming Italian espresso machines in evidence – the equipment here is minimal, thoroughly used and perfectly functional – workman’s tools.
With nothing but coffee on offer, the two page menu can hardly be called sparse – the expansive range is made somewhat navigable by the fact that one page is devoted exclusively to rare and aged varieties, which are only brewed one way and served in two sizes – small and medium, the only difference being the strength and the concentration of the brew [the amount of coffee is the same, the dilution differs]. My chosen small cup of the 1970 bean arrived in possibly the most finely translucent porcelain cup [modern] that I have had the pleasure of using. Half the size of the small espresso cup at Peet’s, it seemed to hold but a thimbleful compared to even the smallest short cup at Starbucks. At slightly over USD10, this was a special brew meant to be sipped and savoured – for its flavour and finesse, not for a caffeine rush.
Especially since it is not a coffee shop for everyone, it is remarkable that such a place even exists. As an audiophile, I see the value in a place like this – it is a standard bearer of sorts, without which the levels of expertise and sophistication of other coffee establishments could not possibly be measured – quite similar in appeal to the Jazz Record Mart featured on this blog a few days ago. As the proprietors themselves confirmed, there’s not much demand for a place like this – they keep the place running because they’re enthusiasts, something we feel a kinship with here at thinkmore. So here goes a call to all manner of enthusiasts : when in Tokyo, please make this a destination.