The next #KurasuPartnerRoasters is ROKUMEI COFFEE in Nara. The owner/roaster, Ida-san has taken a leading role in making the local coffee scene flourish. He grew up in a family owned kissaten, Rococo which has been witnessed the changes to the city since 1974. Ida-san is aiming to introduce specialty coffee culture to local households by offering a wide variety of roast levels, re-defining Nara’s traditional favorite dark roast and blends while actively introducing light roast. He won the Japan Coffee Roasting Championship this year and has become the top roaster in Nara and in Japan.
His Journey with Coffee
Ida-san started to help his family business, a kissaten called Rococo, as a college student. Although he was handling the job very well doing everything from waiting to cooking, it was not his intention to inherit the cafe. However, his interest in coffee slowly grew, he would find himself reading magazine articles featuring cafes he’d visit there, and sometimes he even planned a trips to visit cafes far away. He also attended many seminars to gain more knowledge- coffee was definitely becoming his passion.
Running his own business had always been his desire, and the idea of opening his own cafe became more realistic as he spent more time in the industry. After his graduation Ida-san officially started a full-time position at Rococo, and in 2010, Rococo was refurbished, expanding their business by adding their own roaster- leading to Ida-san's first steps into the world of coffee roasting.
The first roasting machine Ida-san picked was the 3kg semi-blast type Fuji Royal, which still sits at the cafe as a nice reminder of the early days. The manufacturer, Fuji Koki was offering many seminars and Ida-san found it easy to ask questions about the machine, and the simple controls and affordable price closed the deal. As he poured his heart and soul into training, he started to desire to be better- “Rococo is located in front of the station, and that helps with the footfall a lot; but I started to dream about opening a roaster in somewhere remote and attract customers who come purely because my coffee is good. So I started to look for a property” Ida-san recalls. Three years later, in 2014, he found somewhere and ROKUMEI COFFEE was introduced to the world.
“The Coffee I Wanted”
Ida-san's initial roasting style was based on the training he had received at Tarukoya in Kobe and at Fuji Koki. The techniques he had been taught gave him a stable results, but he was gradually feeling stuck. He recalls that it was difficult to know how to develop the coffee in a way that satisfied both him and his customers and find an identity for his style of coffee.
Back then, most of the kissatens in Nara were small-scale, and there was virtually no cafes that roasted their own coffee, and they all served dark roast. Rococo also roasted and served dark roast, but as Ida-san started to socialize with roasters of his own age and they formed a small study group that would often discuss trends and how the market was evolving and, his vision became clear. “I started to see clearly the kind of coffee I wanted to make, and as I discovered what was important to me, my roasting became consistent and better”, Ida-san reflected on his early days.
In 2013, he leapt at the chance to compete in the Japan Coffee Roasting Championship and got through to the final. That experience and encounters with fellow contestants broadened his view significantly, and his study group had seen a big boost in the number of people attending. Ida-san reflects that he was pleasantly surprised how high his cupping score was, and with a rare opportunity to be judged objectively and to learn a lot about professional standard, it inspired him to continue developing so that his coffee would become much better. In 2016, he won the third prize, and after opening ROKUMEI COFFEE in 2017, he was finally crowned as the best roaster. Through the experience at the numerous competitions and later as a judge, Ida-san’s roasting was refined and his vision became even clearer.
ROKUMEI COFFEE’s Coffee
It’s been a year since the opening, and the sales of the beans continue to increase, growing in popularity. At first Ida-san was expecting it would take a long time until specialty coffee became a norm for the local households, but the change is happening even faster than he thought it would. As the sales increased, Ida-san’s Fuji Royal started to hit its limit in capacity, so Ida-san chose a Loring’s Smart Roaster as his new partner. Compared to Probat and Fuji Royal that typically express a strong flavor and character, Loring makes a rather mild coffee, a quality that Ida-san likes about it. “The good thing about Loring is that it creates clean and sophisticated coffee. It is easy to control, which is great too. Loring is a perfect roaster for realizing my idea of the coffee people love to drink everyday rather than a coffee with striking and flamboyant characters which can sometimes be too much” Ida-san explains.
ROKUMEI COFFEE’s effort to introduce specialty coffee doesn't end there- they often host workshops, and they stock a wide variety of roast levels such as dark roast blend to accommodate local customers’ preference while also offering samples of light roast. “Dark roast has its own charm and I want my customers to enjoy my coffee in a way they prefer. But making something traditional, that you can find everywhere, does not make us unique and does not motivate us. We’d love to introduce what we love and explore it with our customers” says Ida-san, and he believes that staying flexible to customer’s need while maintaining the core value and goals is the attitude that got them going.
Ida-san usually purchase green beans through importers, but he started to visit Brazil, Costa Rica and Nicaragua last year to actually see and choose what he buys. “First of all, it was great to see the farms with my own eyes. It was completely different from what I had imagined after looking at photos- especially Latin America was a shock. In Nicaragua I heard stories from farmers there and how it’s been a difficult year for them with a drastically reduced crop. All of these experiences made me appreciate even more the effort and care the producers put into their coffee, and made me realize once again that producing coffee is tremendous work. I am now all the more determined to introduce great coffee to Japanese customers, not wasting a single bean” Ida-san reflects.
“I would like my customers to think of the real people on the opposite side of the globe and be conscious that their choice is making a difference to their lives. That’s the perspective I want to associate with specialty coffee” - the real life, raw stories and background information they offer with their coffee beans is one of the great charms you can enjoy when you visit ROKUMEI COFFEE.
ROKUMEI COFFEE’s Journey to the Future
This year, Ida-san had a chance to visit El Salvador for the first time as an observer for COE qualification. It was a great opportunity for him to be once again reminded of the good thing about visiting the origin in person- choosing what he wants by seeing them with his own eyes, and having many unexpected encounters with the wonderful people there were a pure joy.
Later in Japan he also met a group of people visiting from El Salvador to introduce the coffee they produce, hoping to help their community to flourish. Those experiences left Ida-san greatly motivated to share their stories to Japanese customers.
The level of interest for specialty coffee in Japan being high is undeniable. However, when it comes to the detailed information about origins and farms, it is unfortunately still low. Ida-san finds it difficult to maintain the balance between what boosts the revenue and what he is passionate about. “I want to pay more to the staff. I want barista to be a secure, good job people choose in this difficult times. I’m really grateful that all of my staff are in favor of my vision to introduce more about the origin and farmer’s stories and spend my time and budget on it. But it is a difficult decision considering that I have my staff’s life to support. I can open cafes on busy streets just to get the traffic, but being busy because of the location isn’t necessarily what will motivate you the most.”
Ida-san is planning to expand his business within Nara and make each branch unique- one can be a coffee stand, and the other can be selling beans only. Considering the declining population in the local area, selling products online and expanding the business to overseas are also inevitable. These issues Ida-san has been tackling with are what many rural areas have in common, possibly also globally- ROKUMEI COFFEE will surely continue to be a role model for the Japanese coffee culture destined to develop and mature branching out to many different paths in terms of business model and technology, and will inspire many more people in the future.