Being too early, we were traipsing along sleepy alleys and soaking in the pleasant lassitude of Shimokitazawa on a sunny morning. Bear Pond Espresso may draw hordes of coffee cognoscenti clamouring but the ostensibly abhorrent rules made us jittery. Espresso is not available after 2pm. Strictly no photography is allowed in the shop. Only owner Katsuyuki Tanaka is allowed to make espresso. That is because only Tanaka is permitted to use the B.P.E. Original Technique which he perfected after ruthless experimentation.
Feted with plaudits for his uncanny ability to differentiate coffee origins just by cupping, Tanaka spent 2 decades in New York City. He was an advertising executive with an agency and later, an account manager for FedEx. Tanaka fell in love with espresso in Buenos Aires, when he worked on a commercial with Diego Maradona. Tanaka experienced the cusp of Third Wave Coffee in U.S. and became a familiar figure when Gimme! Coffee opened. He received comprehensive training at Counter Culture where he worked with other specialty coffee luminaries. In 2009, Tanaka uprooted himself from an established career and embarked on a coffee odyssey: he came back to Tokyo and started Bear Pond Espresso.
There is no fancy signage but Tanaka’s red Kawasaki motorbike is a tell-tale sign that we arrived at the right place. A big sign saying ‘Closed’ was on display. We vacillated outside when my girlfriend lurched and slid the door open abruptly; I stepped in with bated breath. Apparently they were open for business. We ordered Dirty and Flower Child. The no photography policy and dolorous strains (there was an ukelele class being conducted) plunged me into silent depths of rumination. Tanaka prepared our orders in utter concentration albeit with an insouciant demeanour.
Served in a mason jar, the first sip of Dirty left me toe-tapping exultant. Dirty is a visceral treat consisting of 2 layers: espresso and cold milk. The first layer is 80% espresso, 20% milk and the second layer, 80% milk, 20% espresso. As the viscous espresso shot suffused with the cold milk, the flavour shifted from bold chocolatey to a smooth sweetness gradually. I ruefully relinquished the cup from my clutches and exchanged it for my girlfriend’s Flower Child. Bear Pond Espresso‘s shot was delightfully syrupy, with a harmonious blend of spicy and salty notes yielding to dark chocolate sweetness.
We finished our drinks all too soon and glanced around the shop. We spotted a Chemex 413Project workshop poster and asked about it. 413Project is based in Massachusetts and promotes the legendary Chemex. Workshops led by the world’s top roasters and baristas including Katsuyuki Tanaka drive this collaborative effort. Tanaka informed us apologetically that there were no more vacancies; he would try his best to fit us in if people cancelled their appointments. He made the effort to ask when I was leaving Tokyo and told us to swing by the following week if possible to find out whether we could make it.
This time we ordered the Red Eye and Cappuccino. Also known as a Shot in the Dark, the Red Eye is made of espresso and a French Pressed single origin coffee. Red Eye was refreshing, finishing with a subtle hue of spice; the Cappuccino was smooth with spicy notes cutting through sweetness of the milk. Tanaka pointed to his meticulous scribbles, explaining that the coffee was roasted a day earlier and it was sharp but floral. He even remembered our names and regretfully told us that no vacancies were available due to overwhelming response. We bought a copy of his book Bear Pond Espresso which he carefully signed off with a message: “Break away from conventional thinking”. The message turns out to be a fitting aphorism after my stroke.
I find Tanaka to be disarmingly humble and modest. His esoteric temperament is easily misunderstood. To me, he embodies the anarchic Shokunin spirit: with scant regard for fads, the Shokunin persists on his philosophy. Tanaka’s obsessive pursuit of coffee excellence with felicity is something one can only envy. Is the no photography policy a spiel? Cameras snapping away are a tad irritating when you are trying hard to focus. Truculent service? My encounter with Tanaka tells me otherwise.
Twitter: Bear Pond Espresso
Website: Bear Pond Espresso
Address: 2-36-12 Kitazawa, Tokyo