Posted in GRD, the world around us, things we like, tokyo by hemmant jha on August 8, 2009

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.

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13 Responses

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  1. aristipposian said, on August 9, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Hello Hemmandt,

    i am so so so glad you found me, so that i could find you.
    Thank you so much for your personnal insight into this Coffee Temple

    Some 25 Years ago, as i was planing my first visit to Europe, my plan was to visit Japan the year after. I never managed, but now i MUST!

    keep in touch!

  2. greg said, on August 9, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    Errr, aged coffee is like any other aged green crop… it stops being fresh coffee and quickly becomes some decaying something else. While green beans may have a much longer shelf-life than roasted coffee, you noticed the flavor drop off within a year until — in many cases — it’s not very drinkable (unless you like bland coffee) after two years.

    Maybe that’s a nice novelty in flavor. But this is the antithesis of how any kind of good, fresh coffee is made. The “finesse” in a lot of these coffees you mention went out the door 28 years ago.

  3. hemmant jha said, on August 9, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    hello Greg, I’m glad to hear your thoughts on the matter. I wonder if you’ve had a chance to try any aged coffee? This was the first time I did, and I had no idea what to expect.

    To my mind, perhaps it is possible to place aged coffee in the same category as aged rice [prized for its enhanced fragrance and grain separation], or jamon, cheese and wine. Of course, for something to be ‘aged’ and not ‘spoiled’, there is a process / protocol to be followed. It is more than likely that, at one time or another, all of the above were regarded as just being ‘old’ – until someone decided that they did taste good, perhaps even better than ‘fresh’…

    I await other comments – it looks as though there will be a clear divide – 2 camps with little chance of overlap.

    Thanks again –

  4. aristipposian said, on August 10, 2009 at 2:41 pm

    Hello Hemmant,

    i keep having my thoughts and conversations about this coffee, so i would like to know from you:

    did you taste these old coffees and compared them shortly afterwards in another café with newer beans?
    A few times i have visited 2 Cafés within one hour and compared their coffees. Did you do that here to be able to judge the taste of those rarities in comparison?

    This is no trick question. I truly wish to know about this.

  5. hemmant jha said, on August 10, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    hello –

    Since I wanted to be able to compare what I was about to taste at this cafe, I did go to another quite wonderful cafe about 90 minutes prior – also in Ginza. This place served only new beans, not aged.

    I enjoyed both visits very much – the flavor was excellent, as was the service. Since the new beans were not the same variety [region, type] as the aged ones, it is difficult to compare the two directly – the aged batch was somewhat more fruity and acidic, the new ones not so much. There was also a difference in amounts of coffee consumed at both, and difference in concentration.

    Unfortunately, there is not another cafe closely comparable to the one in question [aged beans, similar serving style, etc], and a direct comparison was not possible. However, I’m quite used to making comparisons based on sequential, somewhat dissimilar experiences [cars, audio equipment, inks], so I would suggest my conclusions are quite accurate and sound.

  6. aristipposian said, on August 11, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    Thank you for your effort to satisfy our wondering through your additional details.

    I do imagine your judgment to be an able one, especially after seeing the rest of your blog. But this is something perhaps no other place dares to do, so anybody will be wondering, if this coffee could at all taste with the usual array of things a mouth is able to taste, when most coffees are thrown away after one year and this man sells them as luxury after decades.

    I must.
    I MUST go to Japan!

    If two individuals praise this place, i must.

    Thank you, again.

  7. muddydogcoffee said, on August 12, 2009 at 6:00 am

    Thank you for such an interesting article. I have been to Japan several times, but did not know about this place. It will be on my list to visit next time.

    I am a coffee roaster, and I actually maintain a small inventory of aged coffees. Traditionally they hail from Indonesia and India, and as you indicate, follow a protocol for aging. The coffees are aged at origin, I buy them when they are a few years old.

    Aged coffee is a tricky business; there is a fine line between aged and simply old. But really great aged coffees are another beast entirely – deep earthy flavors, low acidity, and a characteristic I’ve come to call, simply, “funk”. Not many customers love these coffees, but those who do, REALLY do.

    I’ve been taught that the process of aging coffee goes back to the transition from sailing ships to more modern transport. Coffee that formerly had aged in the hulls of ships needed “seasoning” to achieve the taste profile expected. That explanation is reasonable, although I have not researched it myself.

    It stands to reason there should be aged coffees, as so many other foods become beautiful new food products via aging. Pu-erh tea comes to mind.

    At the risk of including a commercial plug, I invite those interested to order some aged Sumatra from me to try for themselves, Monsooned Malabar is another aged coffee, but less in the style that most people will identify as aged. I hope you won’t mind me including this link. Please edit out this paragraph if you object to the commercial tie.

  8. 134 « thinkmore said, on October 11, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    […] perhaps not quite enough to contribute significantly to that early onset of diabetes. While the perfect cup of coffee can be quite rewarding, sometimes a Coke is just what one needs. While still laden with […]

  9. […] der zwei oder drei Dekaden alt ist. Doch laut den Erfahrungen und Besuche von Ken Belson oder hemmant jha, und dutzende weiter Gäste, geht es hier um wahrhaftigen Gourmet […]

  10. […] der zwei oder drei Dekaden alt ist. Doch laut den Erfahrungen und Besuche von Ken Belson oder hemmant jha, und dutzende weiter Gäste, geht es hier um wahrhaftigen Gourmet […]

  11. […] which has aged a couple of decades. But the experiences and visits of people like Ken Belson, hemmant jha or Michael Kleindl, plus a few other bloggers, testify of a true gourmet […]

  12. […] which has aged a couple of decades. But the experiences and visits of people like Ken Belson, hemmant jha or Michael Kleindl, plus a few other bloggers, testify of a true gourmet […]

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