The flavour master on Japanese coffee culture

Japanese coffee culture

Café consultant Hitomi Sato talks to BeanScene about Japanese coffee culture and how it differs to Australia.

When Monin Beverage Innovation Manager for Japan and Korea Hitomi Sato touched down in Melbourne, she made a point of experiencing the city’s renowned coffee scene for herself.

“Coffee people [from around the world] want to go to Seattle in the United States, Melbourne in Australia, and Milan in Italy to learn about coffee,” Hitomi says.

“I went to Patricia Coffee Brewers and it felt really energetic. Customers were taking their time, enjoying it, and talking, and the operation speed was really high.”

Hitomi is familiar with high volume work. She entered the coffee industry as a Product Developer for Starbucks Japan in 2013, where she created the company’s limited-release seasonal flavours and drinks. With Monin, Hitomi now develops unique recipes and beverages for Monin’s café clients across Japan and Korea, providing her with insights into many facets of the Japanese coffee industry.

“I help cafés create menu items unique to them that you won’t find elsewhere,” Hitomi says. “Japan is a really big market for Monin, in the bar industry especially. But the café scene is growing, so we feel there is a big opportunity there.”

Hitomi says though specialty coffee is starting to take shape in Japan, there is still a need to spread awareness to the consumer. 

“The younger generation doesn’t like coffee because it’s too bitter and a little bit sour for them. People prefer tea, which has a much softer taste,” Hitomi says.

A phenomenon unique to Japan that influences much of the population’s perception of coffee is the prevalence of canned coffee.

Japanese coffee culture
Hitomi Sato is the Monin Beverage Innovation Manager for Japan and Korea.

“There are vending machines all around Tokyo where you can buy warm coffee for ¥100 [approximate $1.25]. It’s not good and full of additives and sugar,” Hitomi says.

“But canned coffee’s popularity is slowing down as people see that brewed coffee is much tastier.”

Hitomi says cold brew is increasing the approachability of café coffee in Japan.

“Cold brew is soaked over 12 hours, so the taste is mild and less bitter,” she says. “Winter in Japan is really dry and summer is really humid, and that mild taste makes it is easier to drink.”

Hitomi says the popularity of cold brew in Japan is providing opportunities for baristas to customise beverages with different flavours.

“Cold brew is really good in combination with fruits, and Monin can provide a lot of these exotic flavours,” she says. “Some tastes like pink grapefruit and orange spritz are great with cold brew. Sparkling soda can also be added to make a really refreshing beverage.

“I even saw this in Australia, with the popularity of flavoured cold brews like cherry and salted caramel.”

While the café culture is growing in Japan, it is taking on different forms to Australia. US-based chain Blue Bottle Coffee is already making its mark on Japan with 11 stores opening since September 2018, and more scheduled to open later this year. Hitomi says Founder James Freeman took inspiration from the country’s filter coffee traditions.

“Hand drip is very culturally rooted in Japan and is still popular today. Old-style Japanese cafés, called kissaten, make coffee one by one with hand drip,” she says. “People do not drink much espresso or milk coffee.”

Hitomi says one of the driving forces behind Japan’s growing café appreciation is a cultural shift following a 2011 earthquake.

“That incident changed peoples’ [priorities]. They’ve realised they only live once and want to connect with people and do more of what they actually want to do,” Hitomi says.

Meanwhile in Australia, Hitomi says cafés provide an inviting social scene.

“In Japan, the cafés are much more relaxed, quiet. In Australia, people go to cafés every morning. For the Japanese, cafés are for special occasions, and not somewhere you go daily,” she says.

“I want Japanese cafés to be more like Melbourne’s, more social and a part of the community.”

Something Hitomi didn’t expect when she arrived in Melbourne, however, was the opening hours of the cafés lining the city’s laneways.

“I was surprised Australian coffee shops are usually only open from 6am or 7am until 3pm or 4pm. Most cafés in Japan wouldn’t close until around 7pm,” Hitomi says.

Japanese coffee culture
Coffee Shozo in Tokyo takes inspiration from traditional Japanese cafés called kissaten, which offer hand drip coffee.

“After work we go to the café to make conversation with friends. I was surprised that you can’t really go to the café in the evening here, but that’s usual [for Australians].”

Hitomi says Japanese cafés could learn from the Australian scene, such as how food complements coffee.

“Australian cafés serve great food, from the pastries and toast to salad or full meals. In Japan, the food options are limited. They don’t bake and usually source their bread, pastries, and chocolate externally,” she says.

Hitomi says though quality is a clear focus of the Melbourne coffee scene, it is important to remember the playful side of coffee.

Monin’s focus on playfulness and creativity can also create a pathway for new audiences to discover specialty coffee. Hitomi describes a café in Japan that makes a signature drink using Monin’s orange-flavoured syrup to highlight the flavour profile of its Gesha beans.

“They looked at this beautiful coffee, its history and flavour profile, and combined it with additional flavours to better tell that story,” Hitomi says.

“Coffee has many flavour profiles and it’s beautiful, but sometimes it’s difficult to explain these profiles in detail to customers.”

Hitomi says there are similar developments in flavour happening around the world, and Monin aims to play a large role in introducing these concepts to Australia. 

“The café industry has to try new things nobody else is doing. Monin has knowledge of world hospitality trends, not just in coffee but food, liquour, and pastries,” she says.

“We have connections in more than 150 countries, and there is a Beverage Innovation Manager or Product Developer in each of them. We work closely together discussing and sharing trends.”

This article appears in FULL in the April edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe HERE.

Read more:
Made to be Monin
Iced drip vs cold brew
Become a latte L’artiste

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