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EMBANKMENT COFFEE (Osaka): 2017 April's Kurasu Partner Roaster Subscription

The next #kurasupartnerroaster is EMBANKMENT COFFEE in Osaka.

EMBANKMENT COFFEE is located in the Kitahama area of Osaka, the north end of Semba area, where used to play a central role in Osaka’s trade. You still can spot a number of historical buildings alongside the skyscrapers that serve as Kitahama’s new identity as Osaka’s financial district creating a unique harmony. Through it the Tosabori-gawa river flows, where people enjoy sitting at balconies overlooking it on sunny days. While Osaka’s other areas are often described as “trendy” or “attracting youngsters”, Kitahama is the perfect area for laid-back town strolls, you can have a quieter pace of life.

EMBANKMENT COFFEE has its shop in a refurbished Niken-nagaya (semi-attached Japanese style building) by the river, and you can enjoy the fun juxtaposition of a traditional style interior with modern furniture and vibes, just like the city itself. Sitting at the table overlooking The sunlight reflected in the river, we interviewed Aono-san, the head roaster of EMBANKMENT COFFEE.

Career Change from a Textile Dyer to a Coffee Roaster

“I want something different” – Aono-san thought when he decided to leave his career as a textile dyer in Kyoto where he had perfected his skill as an artisan in a world of a traditional craft. At the age of 30, Aono-san stepped into the food and beverage industry, and when he started working with an espresso machine, he found himself attracted to coffee. By the time he became 35, he started to dream of making coffee his career, and roasting coffee beans himself.
One day, he discovered that ELMERS GREEN was starting to roast and were looking for a roaster. “This is it, that’s what I thought”, Aono-san recalls.

ELMERS GREEN is a café inspired by coffee cultures in Germany and England, established by the owner who wished to introduce those cultures to Osaka. Back then, they were buying their coffee beans from KAFE Kousen and others but they had wanted to make their business more personal so had started to produce their homemade products such as breads, cakes and coffee in-house.

That’s how Harada-san, who is now a head roaster at ELMERS GREEN and Aono-san, both joined the team , despite neither having any experience. They were given a space for roasting and a Probat, and they started to learn everything they could- they started reading books, researching online, often using Google Translate to help them with non Japanese articles. They also visited Kaneko-san from WEEKENDERS COFFEE, the top roaster in Kansai who roasts with Probat. They would often visit him to ask for advice, and would have discussions about roasting methods. As a roaster of the same generation, Kaneko-san continued to be Aono-san and Harada-san’s mentor as well as a fellow coffee enthusiast.

“What I like about Probat is that it’s consistently slow”, Aono-san expressed his love for his roaster in a rather unique way. He explains that there are certain methods that only work because of the slow reaction of Probat. “I don’t think it is the most sophisticated roaster in the world, but it has the charm that nothing can beat”, he smiled.

After a month of roasting, they switched all of ELMERS GREEN’s coffee to their own roast. “Maybe it was a bit too daring”, Aono-san laughs. At first, they were roasting almost to recreate the dark roast like their former supplier. However, through the time they spent with WEEKENDERS COFFEE, Aono-san gradually started to be interested in lighter roast with its clean acidity and fruity flavors. Around then, Aono-san received some coffee beans from American roasters such as Stumptown Coffee Roasters, and that made Aono-san dream even more of creating such a great roast in Japan too.
By then, Aono-san was pioneering light to medium roast, and Harada-san was mastering the dark roast- with their teamwork naturally evolving, Aono-san recalls that it was very lucky that the environment let him continue his journey to this new roasting style even though dark roast was a staple at ELMERS GREEN and Osaka.

All of the staff at ELMERS GREEN loved dark roast, and it was difficult for them to accept even a medium roast as drinkable. “When you first try a new roast level, you may not know whether it’s supposed to taste like this or not. Maybe that’s what they were feeling back then”, Aono-san comments. However, with Aono-san’s tireless approach, teammates started to embrace this new challenge, and with the growth in third wave style culture in Tokyo at roasters such as Onibus Coffee the tide was high- ELMERS GREEN officially started to have light roasts in their lineups. Today, EMBANKMENT COFFEE exists as a specialty coffee roasting branch of ELMERS GREEN, but Aono-san’s ambition stretches beyond that. He is hoping to establish the name as a roaster specializing in light roast, something which is still rare to find in Osaka even today.

What is EMBANKMENT COFFEE’s Roast Like?

We asked “how would you describe EMBANKMENT COFFEE’s roast?”, and Aono-san replied “balanced”. That doesn’t mean that every element hits the same score on the flavor chart. “I try to make the coffee balanced based on the characteristics of the green beans. I don’t think that just highlighting the unique qualities of a bean is the best approach. It could make a strong first impression, but eventually you will get tired of it”, Aono-san explains.

The most important thing in green beans for Aono-san is that they express the feature of their origins. Let’s say you find Colombian beans that taste like Ethiopian- Aono-san would find it very interesting and he would love to roast them, but that’s not what Aono-san really wants. He wants to find a gem that glows when it expresses the characteristics of its territory.

Aono-san tries not to force a style if possible- however roasters can’t avoid their opinions, habits or preferences peeking through to their work. Aono-san is trying to minimize those “touches” as much as possible and “let the beans be how they want to be.”
His roast is not to maximize the sweetness or other features of the green beans, but to harmonize that main feature with other elements and complete the transformation. Aono-san says this is the best experience throughout the process of turning green beans into coffee.

“My experience in a craftsmen’s world is definitely helping what I am doing now”, Aono-san confirms. Compared to the teamplay at the café, roasting is a conversation mainly with oneself. Aono-san says that feeling of diving into his own world while roasting is very similar to the feeling he often experienced as a dyer.

Just as there is a beauty in dyed textiles that can’t be expressed with heavy brush strokes or plastered with colors, green beans have their own delicate flavor that can easily be destroyed or changed by how you roast. While dying and roasting are both processes that rely on natural ingredients and reactions, human hands are undeniably involved, and there is something that can’t be found by making it too artificial or leaving it completely natural. Aono-san’s attitude towards roasting seems to be to master the art of minimalism, but the most effective support human can provide to those acts of nature.

His Journey Continues

Since the opening in October 2017, EMBANKMENT COFFEE has been already successful. Many people visit saying they came here because they serve good light roast, and that made Aono-san realize there are many light roast fans in Osaka too. While he is delighted with the fact, Aono-san hopes to Change public perception so light roast is seen as normal rather than something very unique. But for now, every step counts- there are voices starting to whisper on social media saying “I was having trouble finding a café that serves light roast like the ones in Tokyo, but I finally found EMBANKMENT COFFEE”, or “I originally preferred dark roast but light roast is my new favorite!”, giving Aono-san encouragement and motivation every day.

When Aono-san thinks about all the big brands such as Blue Bottle Coffee, it makes him wonder if he should try to sell more by creating something that appeals to everyone, not just focusing on niche single origins and light roast. However, he doesn’t push himself too much, and that’s what makes him stand out. EMBANKMENT COFFEE offers coffee brewing classes and cupping sessions frequently, and Aono-san’s latest dream is to open roastery and coffee stands to make coffee and home brewing more familiar to people in Osaka. Relaxed, but daringly, Aono-san’s journey is changing the course of Osaka’s coffee culture.