TOKYO, Feb 14 — Japan is a country of wonderful obsessions, be it life-size anime mascots, cute digital pets (remember the Tamagotchi in the 90s?) or the latest J-pop idol (though K-pop seems to be the trend now). Even the everyman meal of ramen noodles have spawned an avid following of ramen otaku (a Japanese term for folks with obsessive interests) around the country.
Another obsession that has taken the Land of the Rising Sun by storm is latte art, especially in recent years, with the entry of Third Wave coffee purveyors from the West such as Norway’s Fuglen and Blue Bottle Coffee from the USA. Is it any surprise then that latte art competitions have sprung up all over the place?
But who are these baristas who bring Japanese latte art to a whole new level?
In Tokyo, the champion latte art lovers track down with a passion is Yusuke Ota. Originally hailing from Yokohama, Ota was the winner of the Portland 2014 Latte Art World Championship Open. In order to take the top spot, he had to beat out 63 other baristas from around the world, including competitors from Taiwan, Sweden, Puerto Rico and USA.
He recalls, “I had competed in Coffee Fest’s Latte Art World Championship Open many times in the past before finally winning. There are so many talented baristas out there; the only way to stand out is to keep training and competing, and never give up.”
Today, Ota is the head barista at Downstairs Coffee, a café at the ground floor of the Mercedes Benz Connection in upmarket Roppongi. The café-goers here tend to be “roamers”, professionals who work outside the office and appreciate a strong WiFi signal to go with a great cup of coffee.
Speaking of coffee, the beans at Downstairs Coffee are supplied by Streamer Coffee Company in Shibuya, a homegrown coffee roaster founded by Hiroshi Sawada, himself a latte art champion who won the 2008 Free Pour LatteArt Championships.
Ota explains, “We use Streamer Coffee Company because Sawada-san has created a roasting profile that is dark enough for the latte art to stand out clearly once we add milk to the coffee. In fact, he’s famous for his signature triple rosetta latte art. It’s one of my favourite latte art designs too and I do it in a 12 ounce cup.”
Why a 12 ounce cup?
“It needs to be big enough to contain three rosettas!” he laughs.
Being a veteran of latte art competitions, Ota especially enjoys the Coffee Fest’s Latte Art World Championship Open format. He says, “It’s really exciting as they use bracket style, sudden death rules. This means you go head to head with another barista and the one who receives the highest score from the judges advances to the next round. The loser is eliminated, so you’re under a lot of pressure.”
According to Ota, competitors have only three minutes to produce one free-pour drink for each of the three judges. Free-pour means that there is no etching or tools used. “It’s just milk and espresso, so it’s a really pure expression of your art.”
Art is something that Kyoto-born Junichi Yamaguchi understands very well. Yamaguchi is not only the winner of the Tokyo 2014 Latte Art World Championship Open, he is also the co-founder (together with businessman Kenneth Shoji and architect Masaki Kato) of % Arabica Coffee, a chain of specialty coffee bars with outlets in Kyoto, Hong Kong and Kuwait City.
Pulling shots of espresso before foaming milk to create his Instagram-friendly latte art, Yamaguchi is a vision of confidence in his Higashiyama café, located near Hokanji Temple, a Kyoto heritage site. The beans are roasted on the spot at % Arabica Coffee and you can request your preferred level of roasting, from light to dark.
For Yamaguchi, the “A-ha!” moment came when he came across pictures of latte art on the Internet. He recalls, “I was so impressed by them that I bought a semi-commercial espresso machine immediately to practise latte art at home.”
After four years of what he considers amateur efforts at home, Yamaguchi took the plunge and moved to Tokyo to immerse himself in the coffee industry. He says, “I worked at The Theatre Coffee in Shibuya for two years before competing in latte art competitions. My first competition was Coffee Fest’s Latte Art World Championship in Seattle 2011. I then placed second at the same competition in Chicago 2013 before winning the Tokyo 2014 one.”
Today, the self-taught barista is a much sought-after latte art trainer, having taught classes in Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Malaysia. He believes that good latte art transcends the cup of coffee.
“If the cup of coffee tastes good, that can make the customer who ordered it happy. But if the latte art is beautiful and the customer who had it shares a picture of it, he can make his friends and many people other people who’ve seen that picture happy, not just him.”
And that, for those of you who are indifferent to latte art, is as good as reason as any to start appreciating this art form... the way latte art otakus all round the world happily obsess over.
Downstairs Coffee at Mercedes Benz Connection
7-3-10 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan
Open daily 7am-11pm
% Arabica Coffee: Kyoto Higashiyama
87-5 Hoshino-cho Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily 8am-6pm