“Some say 1 + 1 = 2. Others say 1 + 1 = 3. I say, 1 + 1 = A, okay? Do you understand?” Katsuyuki Tanaka asks me with a big smile. I nod. I’ve been sitting with the barista of Japan’s most daring café, Bear Pond, for almost two hours and have asked only a handful of questions. The rest of the time, Katsuyuki has talked at a clipping pace in a thick Japanese accent. “Whatever people say to do, I do the opposite, you see? No one says, ‘1 + 1 = A, B, C,’ you see?” I nod again.
For 57, Katsuyuki, (Katsu for short) looks more like a rakish resident of Bushwick than a man well into his fifth decade. He talks about driving his motorcycle to Bear Pond everyday in the newly hip district of Setagaya, Tokyo. The café is the size of a studio apartment, with just enough room for a few customers – nothing like the East Village Stumptown Coffee where we meet, which resembles the mid-century administrative office of a public library. Katsu is the only barista at Bear Pond, and he makes espresso like no other in Japan – possibly the world. Extremely thick and syrupy (and a third the size of a regular espresso), Katsu’s espresso has a hit of dark chocolate. “Correctly brewed espresso is not a beverage, it’s a drug,” he tells me in dead earnestness. “Beer and cigars are the same. Kids don’t like those flavors; they acquire a taste.”
For the average morning coffee drinker, even a light espresso can be a too-strong shot to swallow. In Japan, most people stick to milk-based espresso drinks, like cappuccinos and lattes. As Katsu explains, “[The] direction of coffee culture has moved toward a local, neighborhood-style characterized as café. This is fundamentally a diner with quality restaurant food and coffee. The focus was on the environment and a total customer experience.” Essentially, cafés in Japan have been more a “hang-out” spot than a destination for high-quality espresso. Bear Pond is the exception to the trend. No one is lounging in an oversized chair sipping an oversized frothy drink; they’re lining up to get their fix of the “drug” that is Katsu’s espresso.
When I ask Katsu how he got into coffee, he gives me a small smirk. “I’m a bit of a cowboy,” he says. His arrival in the coffee world goes back almost 30 years. Originally from Tokyo, Katsu moved to New York in the 1980s to work for an ad agency and was placed on a campaign for a canned coffee company. Fast-forward a few years, to when he started a job at FedEx in New York, dealing with Asian accounts. Katsu began frequenting cafes work, but couldn’t stomach the coffee at Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts. He found third wave coffee shops like Joe’s, Grumpy and what would become his regular haunt, Counter Culture. Katsu visited often enough to know the baristas. By the end of the first year into his third wave foray, he could not only pick out flavors but also guess the roaster or region with ease. Word soon got round, and Kevin Cuddeback, CEO of Gimme Coffee, invited Katsu to train with him. Secretly, during off hours, Katsu would sit with Cuddeback and learn the basics of coffee roasting and brewing. As it happened, many of the roasters needed help shipping the green coffee beans in from around the world. Who better to help than a FedEx expert? Katsu was serendipitously placed in the hands of some of New York City’s best roasters, further forging his path into the coffee business.
In 2007, Katsu and his wife moved back to Tokyo with the advice from Cuddeback: “Start a café.” To which Katsu replied, “Okay, but I do it my way.” “My way” is the essence of Bear Pond and why the café has grown to be one of Tokyo’s most sought-after destinations for coffee lovers. There are no compromises in quality. The shop is only open until 2 p.m. because, as Katsu told the New York Times, “a wonky power-grid affects the espresso machine.” If Katsu’s La Marzocco FB-80 isn’t working just right, the shop shuts down for the day. And, being the only barista, no one else can make the two most famous of the café’s drinks: the espresso, made with the B.P.E. Original Technique (instructions below) and a Dirty, a four-layer concoction consisting of milk, espresso, milk and more espresso. Sounds simple enough, but as Katsu explains, it’s a delicate balance, requiring a delicate hand. The middle espresso is just heavy enough to rest atop the milk without sinking, while the top espresso is crisper, slightly softer than a crème brule. The tastes alter with every sip: dark chocolate with little milk, then milk chocolate with little espresso.
As we leave Stumptown, which is closing early to celebrate the company’s 15th anniversary, I ask Katsu where he sees Bear Pond in 15 years. He eagerly ticks off the three most important aspects of coffee: “The barista, the roaster and the farm. We have a barista and a roaster… Do you see next move?” I tell him open farmland is a great place for a cowboy. Katsu zips up his leather jacket and, with a big smile, agrees.
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