Kenji Kojima, Fuglen

"Tasting is the most important thing in roasting."
Roaster Fuglen
Tokyo, Japan
Coffee El Guayabo

True to its name, the bird, Fuglen is always in flight and hard to pin down. The Norwegian roaster began as coffee shop in Oslo in 1963, a small and well-beloved institution. Decades later, Norwegian barista champion Einar Kleppe Holthe bought the café and transformed it into a specialty coffee and design destination. Restored with original midcentury furniture and offerings from Tim Wendelboe, Supreme Roastworks, and Kaffa, the shop was celebrated as one of the best cafés around the world and even earned a designation as a cultural heritage site.

As Kenji Kojima, the soft-spoken roaster of Fuglen notes, Fuglen always had “big goals.” During the world barista championships in Tokyo in 2011, Einar fell in love with the city and decided to set up a Fuglen outpost there. Thus Fuglen Tokyo was born in 2012. Today, helmed by Kenji Kojima, Fuglen roasts in the Norwegian style of its origin. That it has garnered success in Japan—where even the slightest bit of acidity can rile—is no small feat. But Fuglen has always managed to transcend expectations, finding success in both East and West throughout its 54-year-old history. When Kenji says casually in a tone that belies the depth of his ambitions that they will be the best roaster in Asia, you can’t help but believe him.

Kenji: I started working in coffee when I was 28. That was ten years ago. In Tokyo, I started at the Paul Bassett café. I was a barista there for two years. During that time, I got to know many Norwegians in Tokyo, and I would talk to them about coffee. I told them I wanted to go to Australia but they said, "You should come to Norway instead." Back then, I didn't even know where Norway was. And I didn't know that they drank coffee in Norway. The only thing I had heard of remotely close to that was Coffee Collective in Denmark.

It was kind of a risk and an adventure to go to Norway, but that’s what I ended up doing. Through my Norwegian friends, I managed to get a job at Fuglen even though I didn’t speak any Norwegian. I didn’t even speak English! They gave me a two-day trial and at the end of it they let me stay.

I learned a lot at Fuglen. At Paul Bassett, they would roast very dark and brew with a higher ratio of coffee. The coffee was really strong, with no acidity. At Fuglen, the coffee was fruity and acidic. The first time I had it, I really didn’t enjoy it. I thought, "Oh, I don't like this." It was very sour for me. But after two weeks, I got used to the acidity, and I really loved it.

I couldn’t get a visa in Norway, so I had to go back to Tokyo after three months. Not wanting to stay in Tokyo, I settled on going to Australia again. My friend was a roaster at Market Lane in Melbourne, and I went to work there as a barista. When I came to Tokyo, after a little while, Robert Thoresen and the Fuglen team told me they were opening in a shop in Tokyo. I was really lucky — they got in touch with me because I was the only coffee person they knew who was Japanese.

In March the year Fuglen was supposed to open, was the [devastating 2011] earthquake in Japan. The Fukushima nuclear disaster. It was a really bad time, and I went up to Fukushima to help, to make coffee there and support them.

Fuglen finally opened in May of 2012. The first three, four months we had no customers. When customers came, they didn't like the coffee because it was not the kind of coffee they were used to; it felt like juice to them. Then Brutus magazine, a very popular magazine in Japan came and did an interview with us. In the article, we introduced our style of coffee and how to make an Aeropress. After that it was just booming! All of a sudden people came, lining around the block to try our Aeropress.

Japanese coffee culture is changing and young people like a cleaner taste now. At Fuglen here, almost 60% drink black coffee, I would say. It took awhile for Japanese customers to accept the acidity, but we didn’t really push them. We just encouraged them to try and taste the coffee. When I serve our coffee, I tell people, "This is Norwegian style coffee." And they usually understand, “Oh, this is Norwegian style coffee. It's different from what we’re used to."

I started roasting in 2014. For two years, we were selling Tim Wendelboe, Supreme Roastworks, and Kaffa, buying almost 100kg a week for ourselves and for our partners. It was very expensive and it made sense for us to roast ourselves. I learned to roast with my roasting partner Barry from Fuglen Oslo. Before he came to Japan, he worked as a roaster at Kaffa. We started roasting together and it was actually not hard at all for me to learn. The most important thing in roasting is to have a good palate, and because I’ve tasted so many coffees, I knew what kind of taste I wanted to achieve. Tasting is the most important thing in roasting.

My favorite coffee memory is from eight years ago. I bought an Esmerelda from Tim Wendeboe and I brewed it in Oslo using an Aeropress. It was three days after roast and after I made it, it didn’t taste very good. I was surprised. I had paid so much money but the coffee didn’t taste good! Then after a few days, I brewed it again and I found that the taste was totally different. It was amazing. I had never tasted anything like it before—it was almost like a juice, soup. That Esmerelda was the best coffee that I had ever had.

Fuglen is actually going to open another roastery in Oslo this June. The Tokyo roastery is going to focus on Asia and the Oslo roastery is going to focus on Europe and the US. We’ll feature the same coffees but it won’t taste the same—with different people roasting in a different environment altogether. The water in Tokyo is also softer than Oslo’s so we can roast a bit lighter down there. Sometimes when I bring my coffee to Norway, I find that it’s too light for their water!

My goal for the future is to be the number one roaster in Asia. Right now, there is no established regional competition in Asia like the Nordic Roaster competition. I really want to start one in Asia. The existing competitions are just not good. The last time I competed in a Japanese roasting competition, their criteria for what was good was totally different, and they did not fancy our coffee style!