When I went to Japan in August I found the coffee scene to be mostly rubbish iced coffees from thousands of vending machines dotted around the country. Alternatively you can get pretty identical dark roasted iced or hot coffee from any restaurant or cafe. It’s not great. There’s a few shining lights like ‘Flat White Cafe’ in Sendai and a handful of places in Tokyo. And then there’s Bear Pond.
There’s that culture of dedication, perfection, continuous improvement that rides through Japanese culture. When you apply it to coffee, you get Bear Pond Espresso.
You’ve got to travel out a bit, to Shimo-Kitazawa Station and then walk a few blocks. You’ll know you’re there when you see a red motorcycle parked outside.
Inside there was a sign saying “no photography, thank you” which I accepted begrudgingly; some striking original features were begging to be shared with the world.
‘Katsu’ is the owner and proudly, head barista too. His coffee journey started 20 years prior in New York, working for Counter Culture Coffee. He then returned to Japan and opened Bear Pond. I said hello and warmed into an extended geeky coffee chat before ordering my first signature drink, the Angelstain, (690 yen approx NZ$10).
Time went by. Other customers came in and ordered, got their coffee from the other barista and left. 3 full rotations. All the while Katsu was still at the machine.
During that time a young man who had come especially from the Phillipines where he started a cafe went to ask Katsu a question. The barista behind the counter stopped him mid way, and told him to hush – “please don’t disturb him while he’s making coffee! Please sit down.”
I knew this was going to be good. I was witnessing not a normal extraction. I was witnessing a birth... Of an angel…
I then saw a little sign go up on the counter. It read “Angelstain hours are over come again tomorrow.” And Katsu called me for my coffee:
In the cup was about 10ml of liquid. I put it to my lips. The texture was like a thick chocolate, much thicker than espresso. There was very little acidity and very little bitterness – a sign it was well extracted. The flavour was, like dark chocolate, raisin. The intensity was pleasant. It stayed on the palate for minutes.
Aftertaste is the key to elegance.
So what is different about the Angelstain?
There are no words I can say that do this justice, but essentially, Katsu has modified his grinder, machine pressure, portafilter, tamp, and himself to be able to do it. The most visible difference is the tamp and portafilter are custom shaped to be convex, kind of like an upside down umbrella. The coffee is kept the same, a blend, roasted perhaps a little darker than I expected.
And then he showed me his two thumbs side by side. Covered in coffee and the occasional plaster it was noticeable that one thumb was considerably thicker than the other. He showed me the motion of tamping and I instantly saw why. He’s been doing this for such a long time that his body has changed.
A true master.
I first learned about Bear Pond Espresso from ‘A Film About Coffee’. Which I recommend as a movie.
The strong philosophy and style of Bear Pond stood out in the film. Here’s an introduction: