The next roaster Kurasu will introduce is MANLY COFFEE in Fukuoka. We interviewed Sunaga-san, who is energetically running the roaster and also well known as a leading contributor involved in establishing the Japan Aeropress Championship.
How MANLY COFFEE Started
Sunaga-san started her career in the coffee industry with Starbucks Japan, where she became a top “black-apron” barista and earned the opportunity to receive special training in Seattle while raising her first child. After exploring other careers, it dawned on her that coffee was her path in life, and she started hand-roasting in 2007. She quickly excelled at it, and upgraded her tiny metal hand roaster to a larger 500g model.. She started to sell her coffee to her friends, and in January 2008 she successfully started a online store which led to a bigger second-hand roaster and a physical shop in October the same year.
The name “MANLY” was taken from Manly in Australia, where Sunaga-san once lived and where she met her beloved husband.
Before she opened her shop in Fukuoka, people had had to go to Tokyo or Osaka to get a good coffee, and that’s what she wanted to change--make great coffee in Fukuoka and let the coffee culture flourish there.
Sunaga-san’s Journey With Coffee
At first, Sunaga-san was convinced that the traditional coffee making style, including hand-picking was the best, and her environment in Fukuoka still retained the good-old Kissaten style where people would strictly recreate their “master”’s coffee, using equipment from major brands such as Kalita and Melita. However, SCAJ Roast Master’s Retreat in 2008 had completely changed her view. There, people both from a traditional Kissaten culture and from a new, third-wave inspired people were communicating openly and in a very friendly manner, no matter how they roasted or which cafe/roaster they belong to. While coffee roasting and the industry itself still tended to be a closed community back then, Sunaga-san felt like she saw the ideal world.
Inspired by her experience at the SCAJ camp, she started to study hard about specialty coffee to broaden her world. That made her look outside of Japan, which gave her a new ambition--to win a world championship. She started to join more coffee events outside of Japan, including joining WBC in London as a volunteer and applying for a job at Monmouth Coffee. In September 2010, Sunaga-san challenged Japan Roast Master’s Championship as a member of Kyushu-team, where she won a jury's special award. Through her journey she gained her interest in coffee producing countries and green beans, so she visited Nicaragua and Costa Rica to buy beans herself--Sunaga-san is indeed a woman of action.
Sunaga-san came across the Nordic Balista Cup when she visited Oslo. She was instantly intrigued by its free and welcoming atmosphere which encouraged people to enjoy learning things together. She then found out that the cup had a roasting section and that entry was done on a first come first serve basis. Having nothing to stop her, Sunaga-san set the goal of winning the world championship there.She didn’t even have her own espresso machine when she applied to participate in 2013, and although the outcome was not very successful, Sunaga-san made the most of her incredible experience by competing with world’s leading roasters and learning the global standard. She also became acquainted with James from Fika Fika Cafe in Taiwan, who won the cup that year. Very much impressed with his attitude and philosophy, she approached James and asked if he would teach her, and ended up spending five days having intensive training with him in Taiwan. The combination of Sunaga-san's forthright nature, open mind and eagerness to learn new things are what made MANLY COFFEE what it is today.
The First Ever Japan Aeropress Championship
In 2011, Sunaga-san was invited to a coffee event in Korea. The event was far more advanced than what she would see in Japan-- many big names were listed as guest speakers, and there was a huge crowd of people enthusiastically communicating and carrying the industry forward. Sunaga-san was shocked when she visited the booth of The Specialty Coffee Association of Asia, which she never heard of, and was told that they don’t have much interaction with Japan because Japan has its own strong coffee culture.
Sunaga-san realised that Japanese coffee culture had been clinging onto its traditional way too strongly and it was in danger of being left behind, while the other countries are rapidly developing their new-age coffee culture.
She also saw a big global coffee community at a barista party she joined in London, again with a very little Japanese presence. Sunaga-san felt so threatened, and was determined to change the situation Japan was putting itself in.
Sunaga-san first came across aeropress when she visited the Coffee Collective, and that coffee gave her an inspiration. Aeropress was not very common in Japan yet, so she contacted Tim Wendelboe who was hosting the World Aeropress Championship and applied for an entry. She asked her friends in the US and in Singapore to get her an aeropress and started her challenge.
It wasn’t an easy way to go-- her technique was not yet established enough, and there was a time when the championship itself was cancelled. As the championship grew, they changed the entry rules and started to accept only national champions. Sunaga-san looked around but she couldn’t find anyone else to start a national competition in Japan--however she didn’t give up. She had this strong feeling of a mission to bring change, and that drove her to host the Japan’s first Aeropress Championship in Fukuoka.
More and more people joined her, including Fuglen Tokyo and NOZY COFFEE, and the event kept on growing and it even produced a world champion, Sasaki-san, in 2014. Sunaga-san may not have got the trophy she dreamed of for herself, but she ended up achieving something far greater.
Birth of Her Daughter, and the Turning Point
On one Spring day in 2014, Sunaga-san finished packing the last coffee beans for the day, and that was when her water broke. She had to leave the management of Japan Aeropress Championship for that year, which worried her, however she kept herself involved right up until the last minute, sending emails to the organizers however she kept herself involved right up until the last minute philosophy even while agonising with birth pangs.
Her third child was born with Downs Syndrome and with other heart defects. “The only thing you should do is to love her, and you can leave everything else to us.” Said the doctors, and with the support of all of her and her husband’s family and their friends it helped the family to overcome the initial shock and to make their steps forward.
There were people who helped her deal with the reality of the business world as well. The tenant next door kindly agreed to rent MANLY’s space while they were closed. Regular customers sent Sunaga-san emails asking for her coffee saying they will wait as long as they needed to. Sunaga-san was spending busy and worrying days with her newborn daughter going through many unexpected surgeries, but with her husband’s help, she finally found time to take herself back to the roaster.
As she approached the roaster, Sunaga-san’s heart was full of worry and empathy for the fight her daughter was facing, and she was exhausted--but when the roaster’s door clicked open, she had a moment where her mind switched from sadness, negativity and worry, to a glowing positivity. She could feel that her concentration and emotional stability started to come back while she roasted, and that made her see the light, and it gave her the energy to do her best under these totally new circumstances. Her eyes were filled with tears as she realised how much the coffee in front of her and all the people who love her coffee meant to her.
Sunaga-san started roasting again , but only on weekends processing the orders she received during the week. It was difficult to keep the balance of being a mother to three children and of being a roaster for the first few years, so she didn't have the time to maintain her company's social networking presence, instead spending all of her time concentrating on herself and the beans she roasted. The limited schedule also made her reconsider what she really wanted to do with coffee--she used to produce medium and dark roasts alongside her light roast for the sake of variety, but going forwards she decided to focus only on light roast and to improve the quality, aiming for a sweeter and smoother coffee.
There was a time she considered closing the roaster to stay with her daughter 24/7, but she found the days to be fulfilling, doing her best and enjoying her life both at home and at the roaster.
Her Journey Continues
Sunaga-san has been running and running for the past 10 years. Thinking of coffee always makes her forget to eat or sleep. She kept on climbing mountain after mountain, and the Japan Aeropress Championship is thriving with many reliable partners. But Sunaga-san told us that her attitude towards coffee is slowly changing.
She still has her ambition of winning world championships--but the definition of success has been changing as she runs her roaster, spends time with her loving family, and roasts coffee for the customers.She used to roast because she wanted to improve herself as a roaster, and to fulfill her interests and goals. But now, she values the communication with her customers more than ever, and she started to roast focusing on her customer’s enjoyment and needs.
Her new aim is to develop as a team, and establish MANLY COFFEE as a brand, rather than have her shop have a reputation solely because she has won championships. Her goal now is not a winning cup, but providing a hearty, sophisticated cup which satisfies customers. The word “It’s delicious!” from the customers is now the trophy she seeks. More fun, more exciting packaging and coffee free from existing categories and classifications are her next championships. “This change happened to me naturally, and it liberated me so much”, Sunaga-san smiles.
Sunaga-san says she wants to make MANLY COFFEE a travel destination for the people who visit Fukuoka and Japan. Just like a yacht she once saw at Manly Beach, she keeps on sailing with a smile on her face, whatever wind she gets.