The next #kurasucoffee featured roaster is Passage Coffee in Tamachi, Tokyo.
When you stand right outside of the café on Mita Dori street, you can see Tokyo Tower straight down the road, standing just like a lighthouse looking down this busy town where university students, office workers and tourists pass by.
The café is full of light, and wooden furniture warms up the interior which consists of motifs of multiple straight-lines crossing. Here you can purchase various coffee equipment including Aeropress, as well as 5 different kinds of home roasted beans.
Passage Coffee opens its door at 7:30 am on weekdays and 9am on weekends to be there for the early birds starting their busy day. We interviewed Sasaki-san, the roaster/owner of Passage Coffee, who won the 2014’s World Aeropress Championship.
Path with Coffee
“On the first day of work, I thought, this is the way to go”
Sasaki-san loved to drink latte all the time as a boy, and this led him to look for work involving coffee when he he needed a part time job as a university student. This resulted in Sasaki-san getting a job with Starbucks in his sophomore year, and he felt after his first day at his work, that “this is the way to go, this will be my career”.
Starbucks trains their part-timers as thoroughly as they train their full-timers, giving them experience cupping and tasting at the head office. Through the training, Sasaki-san was amazed by how varied the flavors of coffee can be, and this made him determined to establish his future career in the coffee industry, at the age of 20.
After his graduation, Sasaki-san joined Doutor, and moved to Tokyo. There, Sasaki-san worked for 2 years and learned a lot about management and business strategy as a store manager of their cafe. While he was busy keeping the café running, the next steps to the future were already being shaped in his mind.
When Sasaki-san was at his final year at university, he travelled to Tokyo to watch Barista Championship, and also visited Paul Bassett in Shinjuku during the stay. Their stylish shop and great cappuccinos stuck in his head, and the pleasant memory of admiration became fresh once again when Sasaki-san started to picture his next move. He had already learned a great deal about customer service and management, and it was time to brush up another skill: brewing and roasting.
Back then, places where you could get proper espresso were quite limited. Paul Bassett was one of those places, and consequently almost all the good baristas knocked on their door looking for a step up. Sasaki-san made the decision to join their ranks..
After getting a part time position at Paul Bassett, Sasaki-san started a one-year barista course at school while juggling two more part time jobs. Sasaki-san’s diligence was rewarded with a full time position, and for the next 6 and a half years, he played a very important role at Paul Bassett’s Shinjuku branch.
At Paul Bassett, staff have to go through a long training period to become barista and be able to even touch the machines. To be a barista, you have to pass multiple exams of such as cupping and tasting, have detailed knowledge about coffee and have great milk steaming skills. It may sound as rigorous as a military boot camp, an opinion Sasaki-san shares, however he also thinks it makes sense as this job requires a serious commitment with strong basic skills and the experience needed to make a good cup of espresso.
After 8 months of training, Sasaki-san became a barista, and when Paul Bassett opened a new branch in Shibuya, Sasaki-san was placed in charge starting the next chapter in his new and busy life.
The First Aeropress Championship, and His Journey Around the World
“It was really a bitter experience”
Sasaki-san's first opportunity to participate in the Aeropress Championship came to him unexpectedly. His boss surprised Sasaki-san by entering him into the competition, telling him to take on the challenge. Sasaki-san was not very familiar with Aeropress, so he made the most of the 2 months prior to the championship by exploring what it was possible for him to do with the gear.
The first thought that occurred to Sasaki-san after trying Aeropress for the first time was “it has a very wide strike zone”. It allowed Sasaki-san to make a decent coffee despite being his first time. Winning a championship, however, was a completely different story, and Sasaki-san’s challenge ended at the second round. Even though he'd not asked for the opportunity, nor had he had the necessary preparation, the loss was still bitter enough to make Sasaki-san determined to come back next year.
As Paul Bassett’s is renowned for producing one of the world’s best espresso, Aeropress was a new challenge for the company as well. Sasaki-san suggested that they put Aeropress on their menu, and Sasaki-san continued to refine his craft.
“Aeropress lets you make good coffee to some extent, but if you try to pursue the perfect one, there are countless elements you need to consider and get right”, Sasaki-san explained. Like espresso, Aeropress uses air pressure, which allows a wide range of results in flavor - which is good and bad, as while you can produce many different flavors, it is extremely difficult to pin down the right one, and a slight variation in technique can result in hundreds of subtly different flavors.
Sasaki-san studied standards from across the world, including Tim Wendelboe’s technique, and attended the championship again. This exploration caused Sasaki-san to experience a fundamental change in his brewing style, which occurred while learning the importance of acidity and clarity to express the characters of origins. His eyes were opened to the world, and that led him to win Japan’s Aeropress Championship, and follow it up by also winning the World Aeropress Championship 2 months later.
Sasaki-san's most nerve racking moment came when he had to use some beans from Bolivia, a very sweet coffee with a dark chocolate flavor. Sasaki-san kept on adjusting the flavor throughout the championship to express not only its distinctive sweetness but also the clear acidity and fruitiness; it resulted in him winning the point for uniqueness. Sasaki-san feels this is the moment he produced a coffee that on the same level as the world's finest.
His victory in the championship meant Sasaki-san's confidence in his abilities were at an all time high, when he returned he learned that Suzuki-san - the head roaster at Paul Bassett - had quit to become the owner of Glitch Coffee, meaning there was now a vacancy. Sasaki-san was picked to join the roasting team and was eventually placed in charge of it.
Only the top baristas can command cupping and brewing, with a thorough knowledge of the process of coffee production from beans to cup. It took Sasaki-san 4 years to get there, but this was merely the start of his story.
Suzuki-san had been involved with Paul Bassett’s roasting from the start, and as the profile and recipe Mr.Bassett decides is passed to each country’s head roaster including Suzuki-san, they make any final adjustments needed according to each situation. When he joined Suzuki-san’s team, Sasaki-san remembered the words he was repeatedly told when he was training to be a barista - “you need to be a robot”.
While they didn't literally mean they wanted their staff to literally be machines, the company values the philosophy that their staff should operate exactly the same way to ensure they create the exactly the same flavor each and every time so there is a consistency in the quality in their products. The same applies to roasting, and they were strictly following the same procedure, time and amount for every operation to produce the signature flavor of Paul Bassett.
Sasaki-san’s dream was still to open his own cafe, but while he was demonstrating his skill and teamwork with other well-trained baristas, he started to wonder whether it may actually be better this way, as it may provide more opportunities to grow and develop. Being a part of a large organization presents many opportunities which you would never be able to get it on your own. However, Sasaki-san’s driving ambition was to manage his own business and to pursue his own roast, a feeling that kept growing in him, and finally, one day, Sasaki-san made the decision to move on.
Sasaki-san always wanted to find a place to open his cafe where there were many offices around but no other cafes selling specialty coffee. For example, while Shinjuku would be an easy choice to set up a cafe selling specialty coffee as the market is already established, with many existing cafes, it means people are accustomed to having specialty coffee. However, Sasaki-san wanted something more. He didn't just want to open a cafe, he wanted to open people’s eyes to the experience of specialty coffee and bring it to a new place, developing a new market. By achieving this, the entire market expands introducing new people to the experience, making both customers and the industry happy.
Tamachi was the perfect choice - with Keio University, a large business area and Tokyo Tower in the neighbourhood, the newly opened cafe attracted instant attention from all kinds of people. The cafe was warmly received especially by the office workers, as they said they’d been waiting for a cafe like this for a long time. They would often travel a bit far for better coffee during the weekend, but it had been difficult to find the same quality during their busy working days. While there were many cafes around, but they were all big brands and provided nothing like the flavours they experienced at Passage Coffee. This feedback delighted Sasaki-san, and it also told him just how much specialty coffee was attracting attention with the people in Tokyo.
Establishing His Own Style
When we asked Sasaki-san to explain what his roast is like, he told us the following: “I roast to fully express the character of the beans. The important thing is to make sure you create a silky texture with a distinctive sweetness, so that the acidity which expresses the unique characteristics of its region will be balanced out.” Sasaki-san also told us that he’s now exploring the fine line between “underdevelopment”and “light roast”, not allowing any greenness or burnt flavor to interfere with the flavor Sasaki-san is aiming to express.
Sasaki-san uses a Diedrich 2.5kg at 4/4 SEASONS COFFEE, making use of the machine 1-2 times a week. He went with the Diedrich in order to gain experience with something different to the Probat he used during his time at Paul Bassett. The Probat has a thick oven and it produces an ideal roast only requiring a few operations and adjustment, however it was a different story with the Diedrich. Sasaki-san told us that he initially thought he had made a mistake when he discovered how tricky it can be, but then it grew on him quickly as he discovered its potential and flexibility at enabling him to try creating many varieties of flavors.
Sasaki-san has been observing coffee culture around the world: He visited Korea 3 years ago, Australia 2 years ago, and Rwanda last year.
“The visit to Australia was particularly inspiring”, Sasaki-san reflects. “Coffee is a core part of people’s lives, and every single café has people queueing up, even in towns dence with cafes.”
Seeing the environment where roasters and café owners can focus on their coffee without needing to cover their revenue shortage selling food and other products earned Sasaki-san’s admiration and fed his ambition.
In Japan, it is still rare to see a café that is able to support itself purely by selling coffee. Most of them serve food and other products to boost their income, and part time staff often juggle multiple jobs. The environment often means people in the coffee industry cannot afford to focus solely on making good coffee, and this frustrates Sasaki-san a lot, along with the lack of opportunities for emerging baristas. Driving the Japanese coffee industry forwards to make it a better and more rewarding place is Sasaki-san’s ultimate plan.
Sasaki-san is now planning to make his own roaster to pursue his ideal flavor, and he is also dreaming of opening another café when he finds another location in need of good coffee.
“I don’t want to stay in a tiny world”, Sasaki-san says. It is important to be introspective at times to form an idea and imagine the ideal flavor, but Sasaki-san feels a craving for new information, experiences and stimulation is the key to success. By trying to enjoy anything the world is preparing for him, those experiences drip into a cup of perfection.
The Name “Passage” and What It Means
Sasaki-san named his café “Passage Coffee”, with a hope of making it into something people can just drop by on the way home from work – something which can be a part of daily life. People who visit the café have their own paths they have led, and at Passage Coffee, their paths cross with coffee that has followed its own path from thousands of miles away, crossing the sea from one continent to another. Passage Coffee is a junction between people and coffee, and makes the journey ahead a better one.
“At Paul Bassett, I was always running around in a café that is much bigger than here. Now the cafe may be tiny, but I do everything on my own meaning it is challenging in a different way” Sasaki-san laughs. This café is a passing point as well as a meeting point for many, and its path itself still continues to an unpredictable, but it is heading towards a bright future.