|Granitos de Altura del Ortiz
It was 7am in Tokyo when we spoke with Kentaro Maruyama, the founder of his eponymous roastery and cafés, and he had just returned from a trip to Honduras, Colombia, and Brazil. Kentaro spends almost a third of the year on the road, meeting with producers, evaluating and cupping coffees, and purchasing distinguished lots. Ever friendly and polite, he spoke freely about Maruyama’s story – which in many ways is his own – how the once self-described “young hippie” came back from meditating in India and found his roots and ideal job back in Japan, roasting coffee.
Now in its 25th year of operation, Maruyama has nine cafés, legions of dedicated followers, and, until recently, a world barista champion (Hidenori Izaki who left earlier this year to start his own business). But the company had far humbler beginnings: for almost a decade, Kentaro ran Maruyama alone, navigating Japan’s skeptical coffee scene, and helping pioneer the nascent specialty coffee movement.
Today, Maruyama is still a bit of an anomaly in a sea of Japanese specialty coffee roasters. Its coffees are not cheap and will never be – but what the roaster delivers in return is excellence, quality, and top shelf offerings. Maruyama also bucks the trend of those hip cafés with their stylish youths; its shops are usually in more residential locations, and its customers are older, with a serious interest in food and drink. Kentaro notes that more than just a coffee shop, Maruyama is the ultimate “coffee bean shop."
Kentaro: In the beginning, I was not a coffee drinker, I was a tea drinker. When I was around 20, I felt a need to anchor myself so I opened a coffee shop in a space my wife and her family had. At the time I was just serving tea and Indian curry. But I started to learn more about coffee and got interested in roasting, which felt so mysterious and artisanal. I had an idea that I would find the ultimate roasting profile which no one had ever found. So I bought a small quantity of green beans and used a Chinese wok to roast. In ten minutes, the coffee started browning and cracking. At that moment, I knew that making coffee could be my lifetime job, whereas making tea and curry could not.
I started Maruyama in 1991. Until 1999, I ran the company alone, I didn’t hire anyone. I would wake up at 6, get to the shop by 7, and roast until 9:30. The coffee shop was open from 10 to 6. Everything I did, I did with my small truck. I delivered coffee to wholesale customers myself.
It was a very individual and closed experience for me from 1991 to 1999. Then in 1999 I became aware of the concept “specialty.” The internet was getting popular and I was so hungry for information; I started communicating with many small roasters in Japan through the internet. Every night we talked about coffee and shared our findings. When we saw that the SCAA was hosting an annual convention, we all decided to attend. It was an eye-opening experience! In Japan everything is hidden and closed. You have to go to somebody and become their disciple. But in the US everything was so open—everyone was sharing information.
After Miami we went to Emeryville and visited Peet’s roasting plant. We were shocked to see how they were roasting – three very young roasters in t-shirts and baseball caps handling a 100kg Probat roaster– roasting was like a sport! At the time I was roasting with my small 10kg roaster, but at Peet’s, they were roasting in big batches while still controlling for quality and using great green coffee.
So my concept of quality and quantity changed completely. I wanted to buy directly from the origin. One of the first things we did as a group after the experience was bid for the Cup of Excellence coffees. We were actually the first small roasters who won a lot from the Cup of Excellence auctions. Then we began relationships with producers. That’s the story of the beginning of specialty coffee and Maruyama.
If I am successful in presenting, say, a Cup of Excellence lot from Nicaragua, people will change their minds about coffee from Nicaragua.
I was so excited about specialty coffee and when I went back to Japan, I talked to many people in the industry about how wonderful SCAA was. But a lot of them didn’t understand. Historically, the coffee industry in Japan has been very successful selling Blue Mountain coffee. Blue Mountain is not specialty, but it’s very expensive, and Japanese companies were making so much money that they didn’t care about cup quality. So it was dangerous for them that somebody was bringing in a new concept of specialty because it would influence and destroy their game.
Between 2000 and 2006, the Japanese coffee industry was very skeptical about specialty coffee. In the 80s, they had sent a mission to Seattle and discovered that specialty in the US meant the coffee was dark roast and named after the country it came from. In addition, any espresso beverage was automatically considered specialty. So the Japanese coffee community concluded that Japanese coffee was miles ahead; in the 70s and 80s, we were already selling coffee by the name of its country and also doing siphon and pour over coffees.
My business had been growing the whole time and customers understood the good flavor and taste of specialty coffee, but it took the industry longer to accept specialty coffee. It wasn’t until the 2007 World Barista Championship in Tokyo that perceptions changed. And now we are really experiencing the third wave here. If you come to Tokyo now, you will see many new coffee shops—maybe even too many coffee shops. People are drinking coffee and it feels very active.
I am angry that the coffee chain is still being seen as one of the low categories. I feel offended. And I feel responsible because I know they’re great. I want to show people how great coffee is, and to do that I need to add value. It’s costly, but it’s necessary.
Now we are selling lots of coffee to customers through our shops and the internet. I have nine shops and on average, 40-50% of our sales are retail coffee beans. This is quite unique. And the reason why I can buy expensive coffees and expensive lots is simply because there are customers who want to buy.
Japanese customers are very sensitive to aftertaste. In very fine Japanese dishes, like very nice sushi, the aftertaste is very clean. We receive many calls, letters, e-mails from customers and almost always, they write to us about aftertaste, or things related to aftertaste. People don’t like a rough aftertaste or astringency. So when I buy green coffee, I always look for a clean aftertaste. And in roasting also. Even though we don’t roast light necessarily, if the coffee has any rough or roast or bitter aftertaste, people will call us. So the finish needs to be very clean.
The trend these days is roasting very light. But I have to consider if a customer buys 200g of coffee beans, they are going to drink that coffee everyday, and very light roasts are difficult to brew. If you are good, you can make a good cup maybe one in three times. If you are an amateur, maybe one in ten times? That’s why our roast is a little bit heavier—it puts us in a different position.
I am not trying to make a coffee where you can be shocked and satisfied in the first sip. For me, the ideal coffee is when you drink everything and feel satisfied. So maybe the first sip is, “Oh, this is nice, this is clean.” And then you keep drinking, the coffee cools a bit, and suddenly you feel, “Oh, oh! Nuance of fruit and sweetness.” This, I like. It is subtle and complex. Sometimes, you need a shock, yes, but not all the time unless you are a Hollywood star.
If you look at the breakdown of my coffee inventory and sales of the roasted coffee, Cup of Excellence lots represent less than 3%, so actually 97% are purchased through direct trade. The Cup of Excellence lots, Geisha, and exotic coffees are just the tip of the arrow. But they penetrate most deeply through barriers and open up a new world. If I am successful in presenting, say, a Cup of Excellence lot from Nicaragua, people will change their minds about coffee from Nicaragua.
As a coffee company owner, I feel responsible to make this industry a sustainable career choice. Why is Maruyama always competing in barista championships? It’s obviously good publicity for us, but for young people, I want to show them that you can have a career in coffee.
I am concerned about baristas and roasters ending their careers at the machine. Many of them want to stay in front of the machine, but I encourage them to plan their careers moving forward. People don’t consider working for a coffee company for 30 or 40 years. Maybe they work for three years to get the know-how and then they open up their own shop, right? But my dream is to have staff who work their whole lives for Maruyama and are satisfied with the work and income.
During the first ten years, I personally delivered my coffee to restaurants and hotels, and in the hierarchy of suppliers, coffee is the lowest. They would say, “Oh, we are busy, wait there,” and I waited outside the kitchen. One hour later they would come back and say, “Oh! You are still there.” And they are not interested in quality, just the price. As an industry, if we don’t create value or the perception of value, then we will always be in the lowest category.
I was shocked when I visited coffee farms. Coffee producers are so much like wine producers—they make great products and I respect that. But sometimes coffee producers don’t even have a bathroom in their house and they are suffering financially. And then I see wine producers from France, coming to launch their wines in Tokyo—they are wearing nice suits and staying at the best hotels. I am angry that the coffee chain is still being seen as one of the low categories. I feel offended. And I feel responsible because I know they’re great. I want to show people how great coffee is, and to do that I need to add value. It’s costly, but it’s necessary.
People don’t consider working for a coffee company for 30 or 40 years. But my dream is to have staff who work their whole lives for Maruyama and are satisfied with the work and income.
I think coffee people are thinking about coffee too much. There are so many things we need to know about service, about society, about other foods. We need to expand our experiences so that we can connect with groups of people who are capable of understanding the greatness of coffee. Now is the time to tell people that it’s not scary to come to a coffee shop not knowing anything and asking for a good cup of coffee.