Exploring Japanese Cafe Culture

The Japanese coffee market is huge and sophisticated. It is one of the most coffee-consuming countries in the world and is renowned for its association with very high-scoring coffees – Japanese coffee roasters often buy the winning lots in competitions such as Cup of Excellence and Best of Panama.

Additionally, while Europe has always been associated with the emergence of coffee shop culture, the first coffee shop actually opened in Tokyo as early as the late 1880s. Since then, Japanese coffee shop culture has not not fail to evolve, integrating both the old and the new.

However, this kind of progression ends up influencing beverage trends over the years, which raises a key question: how can cafe owners keep up with changing consumer demands?

To find out more, we spoke with Nobumasa Shimoyama – the owner of Super random coffee and one Roaster by Nescafé ambassador. Read on to learn more about Japan’s thriving coffee culture.

You might also like our article on why would coffee shops choose to roast their own beans?

A History of Coffee Culture in Japan

Japanese coffee consumption reached a peak of 7.5 million 60kg bags in 2019, making it one of the biggest consumers of coffee in the world. However, it took several centuries for the Japanese population to acclimatize to the taste of coffee.

Between the mid-1600s and the mid-1800s, Japan was somewhat of an isolated trading nation; its only trade route to Europe was with the Netherlands. And although Dutch traders initially brought coffee to Japan, the initial response was negative.

However, towards the end of the 19th century, coffee began to become more popular as art deco style cafes – locally called kisses – began to open. Kissatens only offered black coffee or tea; they focused on simplicity, while creating an inviting and hospitable atmosphere.

At the end of the 20th century, consumer trends shifted towards convenience and mass consumption. Larger scale chains (such as Doutor and Starbucks) opened in the 80s and 90s and vending machines began to offer canned coffee drinks.

However, as these products spurred home drinking during the 20th century, kissatens focused on offering entirely new beverage categories.

One of the biggest was hand-brewed coffee, which became popular at the turn of the 21st century in many kissatens. The owners were continually developing and tweaking their recipes in order to make the best tasting coffee, as quality was always a priority for these establishments.

The Kissatens themselves significantly influenced the global third-wave coffee movement, perhaps including inspiring some specialty coffee brands, such as Blue Bottle Coffee. Blue Bottle founder James Freeman first visited a kissaten in 2007, before opening establishments in the United States heavily influenced by Japanese coffeehouse culture.

coffee siphon

Nobumasa Shimoyama is the winner of several latte art competitions, including the 2012 Vancouver International Latte Art Competition and the 2016 Anaheim Coffee Fest Latte Art Competition. He is also the owner of Scouta coffee and barista school in Osaka.

He says, “Japanese consumers typically drink coffee between waking up and starting work, or to improve their concentration. [at] to work. They also drink coffee to relax with friends [or] alone.”

While the country’s kissatens focus strictly on brewed coffee, Japan’s modern cafes have begun serving espresso-based drinks. These are becoming more and more popular.

“Office workers tend to [drink] black coffee at the start of the working day or during breaks,” adds Nobumasa. “Young people, however, tend to [consume sweeter beverages]like slats.

Despite their differences, however, both traditional and modern Japanese cafes have become known for pushing the boundaries of beverage preparation.

For example, some famous kissatens are experimenting with the coffee they buy. A famous example, Café de l’Ambre, serves a house blend aged for seven years.

Modern coffeehouses, on the other hand, have become famous for pioneering new brewing techniques. One such example is Japanese iced filter coffee. This cold filter coffee drink is made by extracting hot coffee over ice to bring out its acidity and brightness.

Nobumasa also notes that the pandemic has seriously influenced the Japanese coffee market.

“Coffee consumption in Japan is increasing compared to 20 years ago,” he says. “From the end of 2019, consumption [in] cafes, restaurants and hotels have declined due to the effects of Covid-19.

“However, domestic consumption increased during this period and sales of in-store roast coffee also increased.”

This growing demand for at-home consumption, combined with a passionate segment of specialty coffee consumers, has led Japanese coffee drinkers to take a greater interest in the coffee they purchase.

“Sale [a] wide variety [of single origins] is in [more] demand, especially in residential areas,” says Nobumasa.

coffee in japan

Nobumasa explains that due to the breadth and diversity of Japanese coffee shops, roast profiles can vary widely in the Japanese market.

He says, “Japanese consumers tend to prefer dark roast coffee. Most coffees offered by major coffee chains and convenience stores are dark roast coffee.

“However, lightly roasted coffee with a crisp, sweet acidity is becoming increasingly popular. More and more consumers are beginning to appreciate the diversity of coffee.

These emerging trends in roast profiles mean that café owners must be able to adapt quickly to changing consumer demands.

One of the ways cafe owners can take advantage of this is by Roastelier by Nescafé, a counter roasting solution that has just launched in the Japanese market. This product allows coffee companies to efficiently create a range of roast profiles to meet consumer demand.

Nobumasa explains that the trend for cafes to roast their own beans is becoming increasingly important across Japan.

“The number of coffee shops or cafes with roasters has increased,” he explains. “[These] stores serve specialty coffee [by the cup] and mainly sell beans.

However, since most commercial roasting equipment is bulky and tends to require its own dedicated space to operate, installation can be a potential challenge for smaller cafes.

Nobumasa says, “Setting up big machines and finding space can be obstacles. However, Roaster has a compact design that does not require much space and can be easily installed even in a small [coffee] store.”

Additionally, with their small sizes, countertop roasting solutions allow cafe owners to focus on freshness by roasting in smaller batches.

“With Roastercoffee beans can be roasted in small 250g batches, so there is less waste and the process is easy to manage,” Nobumasa concludes.

pour milk into coffee

How can cafe owners respond to changing consumer needs?

Freshness is a key consideration for many Japanese coffee consumers.

Nobumasa tells me that RoasterKobe’s flagship Japanese store uses “ultimate freshly roasted coffee” after three hours of roasting for a unique sensory experience. He, alongside 2016 World Brewers Cup champion Tetsu Kasuya, collaborated on RoasterThe menu of coffee blends and signature recipes.

“First of all, Roaster allows consumers to enjoy fresh coffee beans that have been roasted in-store,” he tells me. “However, in the cafe, you can not only taste the freshly roasted coffee, but also experience the aroma and [craft] of roasting that you rarely see in [cafés].

“Japanese consumers love to enjoy delicious coffee at home, but [also] want a bit of luxury in the restaurant,” he adds. “[Cafés] that in-store roasting can meet both [of those] Needs.”

japan roaster

Nobumasa adds that in-store roasting can help the country’s consumer base “understand coffee better” and improve traceability.

For example, RoasterThe system uses a QR code to identify the coffee, giving baristas a variety of suitable roast profiles. Scanning the code highlights the unique terroir of each coffee.

Nobumasa adds: “Consumers want to enjoy a variety of origins; coffees from Brazil, Colombia and Ethiopia.

“Each bean requires its own light, medium or dark roast profile, and Roaster can roast evenly with just one touch.

He also notes that it’s not just consumers who benefit from counter roasting facilities.

“It’s great for cafes to create and roast their own coffee and taste it themselves.

“Over time, it may even be cheaper for coffee shops to buy green beans and roast them themselves than to buy roasted coffee from wholesale suppliers.”

japan roaster

In a booming coffee market like Japan, keeping up with constantly changing consumer trends can be a challenge. In-store roasting with a solution like Roaster is a way to respond; it allows coffees to be roasted for an ever-expanding range of origins, brewing methods and consumer priorities.

Nobumasa concludes by saying, “Café owners can pursue the taste they want in their coffees.

Did you like it? then read our article on 5 specialty cafes to visit in Tokyo, Japan.

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Perfect daily grind

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