For any diehard coffee fan, hearing about Bear Pond Espresso is like being a gambler and hearing about a legendary underground poker room. A mythical place.
There are some rules. No photographs. No espresso after 2pm. (A change in the power grid's electricity screws with the machines.) No espresso if the owner isn't there. He is the only one that is allowed to do the B.P.E. Technique. The resulting espresso shot is thick and syrupy. If left out for a few minutes one could flip the cup over and nothing would spill out.
Located in the outskirts of Tokyo, Bear Pond is the brainchild of Katsuyuki Tanaka. He opened the bar with his wife in 2009, after falling in love with the indie coffee culture of New York City.
When I heard that Katsuyuki would be visiting Joe's coffee in NYC for an event this week, I knew it was my only chance to experience Bear Pond. Outside of buying a plane ticket to Japan, of course.
Katsu (as he informed us he liked to be called. "Pronounced like cat") described his first encounter with espresso while working for a Japanese ad agency.
While shooting a canned coffee commercial in Argentina with soccer legend Maradona, he observed a still drunk Argentinian man wander into a café at 4am. The man lit a cigarette, ordered a shot of espresso, threw it back, took a drag, exhaled and put out his cigarette into the empty cup.
"How very sexy!" Katsu exclaimed.
After the talk, the crowd gathered around the machine as he made his famous Dirty (A layered drink of cold milk and espresso), signed the few copies of his book "Life is Espresso" (which were sold on a donate-what-you-want price, all proceeds going to Hurricane Sandy relief.) and chatte. It was a truly inspirational.
Here are five things I learned from Katsu of Bear Pond Espresso
1 - "BEST" IS A MATTER OF OPINION
Katsu talked about his first real experience in cupping (coffee tasting) with a group of professional baristas in New York City. One taster commented how a cup tasted chocolately and bright. Katsu was surprised at how she described it. He realized that people's own background, their food culture, the house they grew up in, their jobs, all influenced how they process and form opinions. A smell might remind you of a room in your home, while the same smell can remind a woman of her office. Because of this, the idea of best is unique from person to person. Instead of aiming to have something be proclaimed the best universally, the only true thing we can offer is what is best to us. An expression of our experiences and background. Some will like it. Some won't. That is Bear Pond's goal. Not to try to be the best espresso bar, but to offer what an espresso bar is according to Bear Pond.
2 - BE THE COWBOY
Katsu used horse riding as an example. Europeans developed horse riding into an art form with certain rules and prestige. So beautiful in fact that it's an Olympic sport. This represents the establishment and tradition. Katsu, however, felt more in tune with the idea of the cowboy. The cowboy still rides a horse, but in a less formal and more natural way. Almost instinctively. Katsu respects the rules of tradition, but enjoys the passion and energy of being like the Cowboy.
3 - OBSESS ABOUT THE DETAILS
At Bear Pond Espresso, Katsu took apart his espresso machines, examining and noting all the parts. He researched the factories that made the pieces and worked with them to have custom versions made. Custom even down to the screws. The result is a machine fine tuned to his liking.
Every morning before opening, Katsu his team make cups and cups of lattes for tasting. He ends up consuming about a 1/2lb of beans a day himself. The machines, he says, are living things that change daily from use. He devotes each morning to see how the machine are working, taking studious amounts of notes in a datebook. From brew times, to tasting notes and final balance adjustments, the pages resemble that of a scientist working on a complicated math problem.
Understanding your tools and the metrics of your work are vital to maintaining quality.
4 - BIGGER ISN'T THE ONLY GOAL
He doesn't want to be the next Starbucks. He's happy with the size he is now because he defined the goal. To continue to explore and make good espresso. He doesn't need a chain of 1,000 stores to do this. He just needs one. (Though they do have a 2nd location, it does not serve espressos or dirtys.)
5 - LIFE IS ESPRESSO
Recounting his experience during a cupping session in New York City, a New York Times reporter at the event was extremely impressed with Katsu's knowledge of coffee. She asked him for an interview, which he agreed to do, but was reluctant to tell her where he actually worked. Even in retelling the story, Katsu seemed embarrassed to say he worked in advertising for Fed-Ex. He gave the reporter his details but asked her not to print his current occupation.
He then pulled up his sleeve to reveal a tattoo that read "Bear Pond Espresso".
"This is my business card," he says to his tattoo.
"When I worked at Fed-Ex and I present my business card, people think oh, he is Fed-Ex. But I'm not Fed-Ex. Espresso is my passion. That is why the book is Life is Espresso."