When Silicon Valley’s favourite coffee chain set up shop in Tokyo, Japan, Blue Bottle Coffee founder James Freeman didn’t quite know what to expect.
Four months after opening, customers waited in four-hour lines just to try the famous pour-over coffee, which costs 450 yen, or $3.75 a cup. Today, four Blue Bottle cafés call Tokyo home.
While launching a new market is always risky business, stakes ran extra high for Freeman, who got into the coffee business in part because of his obsession with Japanese cafés.
“Anybody who’s known me more than a few minutes knows I’m very deeply inspired by the old-fashioned coffee shops of Japan, and in Tokyo particularly,” Freeman tells Business Insider.
Since it was founded out of a San Francisco garage in 2002, Blue Bottle hasn’t stopped growing. Business Insider reported on Tuesday that the company is undertaking a massive expansion this fall that will double its domestic market size. But the decision to launch in Tokyo in February 2015, before opening cafés in most major US cities, was a surprising one.
Freeman chalks up the move to his propensity for “doing things the hard way.”
But a visit to Japan’s capital city in 2008 also stuck with the former concert musician.
While Japan is best-known for its tea, coffee is an important part of the culture. In the traditional Japanese siphon bars, baristas brew each cup by hand. They use bamboo paddles to stir the cup, creating whirlpools in no more than four turns and never touching the glass. Coffee masters carve paddles to fit their palms.
“You’re vulgar if you pour coffee out of an urn in certain shops in Tokyo,” Freeman says. “People train themselves to a very high degree of precision that I’ve never seen anywhere else.”
He continues to make pilgrimages to a café called Chatei Hatou, where individually poured cups sell for $15, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Even the design of these siphon bars — with their minimalism and unfinished look — left a mark on Freeman. In his Tokyo-based shop, like most Blue Bottle cafés, sunlight pours in through massive windows. Vintage roasting machines stand on display and glitter in the light, eliminating the need for excess decorations. Clean lines dominate the space.
Freeman describes the aesthetic as the “removal of things rather than the addition.”
He says the goal has never been to make Japanese-style coffee, though the popularity of Blue Bottle in Japan hint that he might be onto something.