MARUYAMA COFFEE started in 1990 as a roaster/retailer ; now a highly successful bidder for top lots at Cup of Excellence (COE) auctions, they offer the world‘s best coffee to discerning customers in Japan. Besides their flagship store in Karuizawa, the greatly anticipated Tokyo shop opened in October 2012 at Oyamadai. We trudged our way there, along the icy sidewalk on a frosty morning, yearning for warm comfort from coffee.
As they prepared our orders, one of the baristas served sample cups of a natural Panama Geisha (not on the menu at that time). It was a clean and well-balanced cup, with abundant floral notes and hints of spice. We were relishing the Geisha’s lingering finish when our orders came in BODUM French presses: Sonia ordered Panama Elida Geisha, and I wanted to try Costa Rica Zamora COE Number 1.
The Elida Estate is one of the two highest coffee farms in Panama; varietals grown are mainly Catuai and Bourbon, with Geisha planted in recent years. With rich volcanic soil, mild temperature, and high altitude, Elida Estate has been consistently producing one of the highest rated natural processed coffees in the past years. MARUYAMA COFFEE‘s washed Panama Elida Geisha is well-balanced with a light body and delicate acidity; we tasted lemon zest followed by an intense floral note with jasmine aroma. The finish is long and smooth with a clear mandarin note.
The Costa Rica Zamora COE Number 1 (2012) on the other hand is a delightful orchestra of tropical fruits, sparkling with crisp citrus and berry notes. It has a deeply complex aftertaste, finishing in a silky sweet dark honey.
Impressed, we bought beans from Brazil Santa Inez for some home brew action. As a gesture of appreciation, we were offered two complimentary cups of coffee to go. This is my third visit to Tokyo in less than two years, and I am still impressed by the impeccable service. Loitering along rows of French presses and other coffee paraphernalia on display, we indulged in our second serving of the day.
Four trophies won by their baristas caught our attention: one of them, Miki Suzuki, is the 2010, 2011 Japanese Barista Champion. She scored an impressive 5th placing in the 2011 World Barista Championship and came in 4th the following year. Miki Suzuki is one of the few women who bucks convention in a male-dominated coffee industry, serving as a powerful inspiration to aspiring female baristas in Asia.
Speaking of inspiration, we ought to share more about Kentaro Maruyama. MARUYAMA COFFEE began as a small roaster in Japan. Together with some other micro-roasters in Japan, they formed a mailing list group called “Mikatajuku”. Loosely translated, Mikatajuku means “a free school of coffee supporters”.
Back then, there wasn’t much information about specialty coffee available; their voracious hunger for knowledge drove them to organize regular sharing sessions. Many of them travelled from different parts of Japan to gather at a shop, cupped together and shared ideas. Some of them attended a Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCCA) event in Miami and found themselves on a cruise boat party mingling with famous coffee producers like Mr.Trygve of Solberg & Hansen.
Maruyama mulled over what he had learnt during the event. He felt that they were far from the world class pioneers of specialty coffee. They might be a small roaster but Maruyama would not let anything stop them from forging to the frontiers of specialty coffee. He racked his brain, thinking of ways to work towards the cutting edge of the industry.
Maruyama believed that, to become true blue specialty roasters, they should build a direct long term relationship with the coffee producers. He thought the COE could serve as a program that bridged specialty coffee producers and specialty roasters. Economically, it made more sense too: as a micro-roastery, they could not afford to purchase entire containers of coffee. The COE lots were smaller in quantity and were within their handling capability. With this in mind, they decided to pool all their resources into COE as a group so that they could enjoy the economies of scale.
MARUYAMA COFFEE‘s first successful COE lot was the Danilandia from Guantemala; Maruyama could still remember how touched he was while roasting the first batch. Unbelievably excited that they had actually won a lot from COE, the effervescence soon spilled over to the customers.
2002 turned out to be a pivotal year. MARUYAMA COFFEE won the Number One lot Agua Limpa Ⅱ from the Brazil COE at a record price. Their customers were blown away by the great coffee and the rest, as they say, is history.
On the way back, I pondered over Maruyama’s story while watching the drab jungle flash past in a grey blur. Maruyama had emphasized how they started as a small roastery: “Because specialty always start from small; we can grow together.” His is a classic case of fledgling startups forming a collective, sharing an ideology, and working towards a common goal; working together opens up strategic opportunities that would not have been available otherwise. I have a feeling Maruyama’s story would provide food for thought in time to come.
Meanwhile, our Tokyo Coffee Trail has just begun.