13th March, 2019

Bear Pond and Koffee Mameya

Despite markedly different approaches to customer service, Bear Pond and Koffee Mameya have much in common, not least their unflinching dedication to quality. When coffee reaches this level, the experience is mind-altering.

Outside Bear Pond with Katsu Tanaka in March 2016.

Mid-morning in our little Shimokita apartment. The wet room is all pipes and levers; hot water hand-cranked with a "knack" and no small amount of hope. Eventually showered and ready for the world, we take a Sunday morning stroll to Bear Pond. Arriving a little before 11am, we lurk conspicuously until the doors slide open.

Photography is forbidden, and more than one review suggests Tanaka-san and his wife will shut down idle chat. I'm sure they don't remember us, but on our first trip, we’d found them to be incredibly friendly, Tanaka-san even leading us outside and instructing some young guy to take photos. Maybe they just don’t tolerate aresholes. Anyway, with no desire to tarnish that memory we keep chat to a minimum, Geri requesting two Angel Stains in confident Japanese. We choose a shelf, prop ourselves on stools, and patiently await our encounter with the legendary shot.

Espresso artistry

For a couple of hours, the Angel Stain is the only option on the menu (we'd been a few minutes too late on our previous visit). Each shot requires intense concentration and concludes with a meticulous clean down of equipment. Everything happens out of sight behind the white La Marzocco; the top two or three inches of Tanaka-san's hair the only evidence of a genius at work.

Tanaka-san at work Bear Pond
Sneaky photo of Tanaka-san at work.

The resulting shot is extraordinary. It's coffee, of course, but it’s not like coffee. It’s like espresso but nothing like one. It reminds me of chocolate yet doesn’t taste anything like chocolate. It transcends coffee as I know it to become something unique; deep and rich and immaculate. My tastebuds request I pay attention, and I smile—a beaming smile. It picks me up, and I feel alive. If I didn’t loathe the word “mouthfeel”, I’d wax very lyrical about the mouthfeel. If it were a colour, it would be a new one that I haven’t witnessed before. I stare at this tiny trace of thick, viscous liquid and wonder how somebody can make ground beans do this.

Barista law dictates that espresso is pulled to specific calculations, permitting very minor adjustments to weights and grinds and little else. It's a finite operating space designed to thwart under or over-extraction. This rigid process might be the enemy of artistry, and yet the Angel Stain puts a wiggle in that straight line. It's unlike anything in my frame of reference, and I realise why Tanaka-san is smiling back at me from every coffee book or magazine. In this modest little room in Shimokitazawa, he performs a magic spell with beans. A small miracle. Really.

We wander around Shibuya, Harajuku, and a little of Shinjuku, revisiting shops we liked, discovering new ones. We enjoy an hour at Tower Records because it’s impossible to resist. We stroll Cat Street and grab an excellent cappuccino at neat little coffee shop Chop.

Coffee theatre

That afternoon we locate Koffee Mameya between residential properties on a narrow side street. There’s no signage, just an elegant wooden entrance framing a minimal Japanese garden: a clue to the treasure within. Passing tourists crane to see why this bijou matchbox is drawing a crowd, then move on. Those in the know arrive to assess the wait, inevitably succumb, and fall into line.

Koffee Mameya
Eiichi Kunitomo and Takamitsu Takahashi at Koffee Mameya.

We queue patiently, tracing around the small packing room with its attractive chromate conversion coating. Facing us is a box within a box: mortared walls and ceiling framing a well lit wooden cube — a hand-width breathing space separating the two. It feels more like a tiny theatre, the performers costumed in the white-coats of lab technicians. Every customer takes photos and they're welcome to do so.

Eventually, it’s our turn at the counter, and friendly Takamitsu Takahashi welcomes us. He enquires as to our preferences, listens carefully, and responds by highlighting possibilities on a visual guide: a grid of beans displayed under glass, arranged in a gradient of browns from light to dark, with accompanying printed sheet. We opt for a fruity Costa Rican, make payment, and step to our left to observe head barista and co-owner Eiichi Kunitomo prepare our drinks with measured performance. The resulting coffee is served cool enough to enjoy at the counter, and it's exceptional: citrusy notes and a delicate, slippery texture.

Previously in this series
I gaze down at the blinding Japanese Alps, Fuji's distinct cone pricking the horizon.

Meeting my wife for coffee

Bear Pond and Mameya offer markedly different experiences: the former is aloof, opaque, and offers next to no choice, whereas the latter is built upon conversation, transparency and tailored service. Despite such differences, they have much in common: both demonstrate a commitment to serving the very best, and each leaves you grateful for the gift. There is also that sense of connecting over a shared appreciation for quality and the effort that goes into the coffee: they know when you know, and you know they appreciate it.

These events took place on 18th March 2018. I'm gradually tackling drafts from the trip, and you can read the preceding post here.

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