Intelligentsia Coffee is one of the Big Three of Third Wave Coffee, together with Stumptown Coffee Roasters and Counter Culture Coffee. As one of the pioneers of direct trade, they are on a constant pursuit for truly exceptional coffees by working closely with farmers. Around since 1995, Intelligentsia now has 7 bars – 4 in Chicago, 3 in Los Angeles and a “lab” in New York. identity COFFEEBAR + GALLERY is the first in Japan to carry Intelligentsia’s branding, serving a wide range of single origin hand drip coffee, and espresso drinks with a choice of two blends.
identity COFFEEBAR + GALLERY went to great lengths to uphold their exacting standards. The barista received comprehensive training in Chicago where solid emphasis was placed on making great coffee at high volume, fostering culture of excellence and creating loyal customers. (He did an exceptional job of creating loyal customers, but more on that later.) Located in Harajuku, identity COFFEEBAR + GALLERY is designed by the team behind Intelligentsia Venice Coffeebar’s interior. What sets identity COFFEEBAR + GALLERY apart from Intelligentsia’s coffeebars is the art gallery currently exhibiting Gregg Fleishman’s Sculpt Chair as well as artworks by Sonja Smith and Jeff Smith.
We found the shop at the end of a side alley after weaving through the labyrinth. Peering through the floor to ceiling windows from afar, we halted our steps in hesitation. Behind the counter stood a suave barista who could easily pass off as an assassin from an art film, with his steely eyes, wavy locks, and goatee beard. Lined with whimsical sculpture chairs, intricate pottery, and Intelligentsia coffee gear, it felt like the shop was owned by a cadre of art experts who entertain sophisticated connoisseurs only; the ‘cooler than thou’ ambience of the place was daunting for coffee novices like us.
My eyes darted across the menu anxiously and I decided on the Kenya Karatina Peaberry hot coffee. The barista (we learnt, later, from Cafe & Restaurant magazine that his name is Abe) informed us that it was not available and apologized profusely. Abe quickly recommended the Kenya Kangocho and other ‘fruity’ coffee. I was impressed that he managed to size up my preference so quickly despite the language barrier. After settling for the organic Bolivia Anjilanaka (ahn-hee-lah-nah-ka) and Cappuccino, we waited on Gregg Fleishman’s Sculpt Chairs. The plywood furniture with playful geometry structure makes a very good conversational piece. Eye catching use of negative space imparts a sense of lightness: despite its precariously fragile appearance, the stress tested Sculpt Chairs can withstand body weight resiliently.
While we were waiting, Abe surprised us with two cups of Santuario Geisha Colombia ice coffee brewed with the Chemex. He apologized humbly (again) though it was probably my fault for mixing up the menu. The Santuario Geisha Colombia teases with a vivacious acidity: it has a refreshing jasmine aroma and the complexity of berry-like flavours with mandarin undertone is a testament to its lineage. While savoring the Geisha’s clean, sweet finish, I couldn’t help but marvel at the incredibly outstanding Japanese service; the display of knowledge, devotion, pride, and mindfulness reminded me of Mahatma Gandhi’s words.
“A customer is the most important visitor on our premises.
He is not dependent on us.
We are dependent on him.
He is not an interruption in our work – he is the purpose of it.
We are not doing him a favour by serving him.
He is doing us a favour by giving us the opportunity to serve him.”
The Bolivia Anjilanaka jolted me out of my contemplative stupor with its delectable juicy notes: melon, peach, and pear, with a soft hint of spice, finishing in nutty chocolate. In between sips of my coffee, I approached Abe to get the spelling right for my taste notes. He thoughtfully offered an Intelligentsia packaging for me to bring home; all the information I needed was on the label. Planet Propaganda did a superb job with the red foil packaging: high gloss varnish and typography treatment commanded high dignity for the veritable coffee brand. We chatted with the owner, Mr. Matsumoto, who kindly shared about Intelligentsia’s tireless dedication to quality and his aspirations for identity COFFEEBAR + GALLERY. Mr. Matsumoto envisions a platform providing impetus for baristas, artists, coffee afficonados to interact and inspire new ideas, through public cupping, workshops, and other activities in the pipeline.
It was almost closing time; Abe was busy rinsing a paper filter on the Hario V60. As we got up to return the cups before leaving, he asked if we had a bit of time.
He was in the midst of preparing complimentary cups of Kenya Kangocho.
Flabbergasted by his gratuitous act, I muttered my thanks. I was lost in thoughts while savoring the full-bodied, zesty citrus flavour of the coffee. In an age where interpersonal relationships have become tenuous, the warmth of Abe’s earnest gesture is touching. Such gratuitous act of incredible service is a testament to passion; passionate people embrace work, friends and above all, life, whole-heartedly. Perhaps that is why they say coffee drinkers make better lovers.
Before leaving, I requested to take a photo of the shop. They gladly obliged before scuttling away to take cover; my girlfriend and I burst into guffaws at their shyness.
We went back
A week later, we wanted to buy a V60 02 and fresh beans for some home brew action. Needless to say, we went back to identity COFFEEBAR + GALLERY.
We stepped in with hearty greetings of “Konnichiwa” from Abe and his lady colleague, Yuko. Abe introduced new roasts that just arrived; we eventually settled on Amigos De Buesaco Colombia. The lady barista packed our purchase into a paper bag while Abe preheated the V60. This time he wanted to treat us cups of hot Santuario Geisha Colombia (we had it served cold, brewed with the Chemex, during our first visit). We chatted as he steadily coaxed flavours from the grounds, and received valuable pointers from him.
Abe kindly gave us spare paper filters without asking if we needed any. Again, we were impressed by his thoughtful initiative. There was no attempt to up-sell filters or range servers; service was delivered with pure empathy. As we got up to collect our purchase, Abe and Yuko gave us an Intelligentsia V60 brew guide for reference. He said the values indicated had changed and took the trouble to correct them for us.
On the train back, my girlfriend shot me a puzzled look: there was something else in the paper bag.
It was a bag of Zirikana Rwanda beans.
Astonishment broke the bewildered pause between us, as we realized what Abe did: he slipped in another bag of beans as a gift without telling us. We were left speechless by yet another act of wonderful service. My lips pursed to suppress the rush of ambivalence: surprise, disconcert, gratitude, and respect. I believe this is a unique trait of the Japanese culture. Japanese do not verbalize everything: they make an effort to understand others’ feelings without asking directly. This is why most people are polite and considerate in Japan.
My girlfriend explained that Abe’s selfless act exemplifies Omotenashi. Loosely translated, it is an ancient philosophy of having ‘selfless desire to take care of others’ (Tokyo Weekender: Spirit of Omotenashi). The word ‘Omotenashi’ in Japanese comes from omote (surface) and nashi (less), which means “single-hearted”, and also mote (carry) and nashi (accomplish), meaning, “to achieve”. Therefore, Omotenashi has two meanings, which include offering a service without expectation of any returned favour, and the ability to actualize that idea into an action. Omotenashi has a similar meaning to hospitality in English, but it suggests a deeper part of the human consciousness (WAttention: Omotenashi – The Heart of Japanese Hospitality). No wonder identity COFFEEBAR + GALLERY remains a beautiful memory of our Tokyo Coffee Trail, one that we look back fondly, with gratitude and respect.
We Went Back. Again.
A week before I left Tokyo, we went back to pick up more beans and bid farewell: the Omotenashi experience at identity COFFEEBAR + GALLERY had turned us into devoted customers. Coffee is a compelling moment of sensory awakening: that is why we crave for the experience ever so often. A great barista is a friend, craftsman, and purveyor of this gratifying experience. Thanks for the unforgettable experience, identity COFFEEBAR + GALLERY. We will be back.
Facebook Page: facebook.com/identitycoffeebar
Address: 1F Ares Garden Omotesando, 4-28-4 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
Update (Feb 2014):
identity COFFEEBAR + GALLERY has ceased operations at the end of Jan 2014. Thank you for your support.