The last time I was in Japan I didn’t care much for coffee. It wasn’t until a revelatory experience at Joe’s in the summer of 2009 that I started to like it. Rather, become a bit obsessed. And so when I visited Tokyo this December I was determined to explore the city’s cafe offerings.
I was particularly interested in how Japanese precision and general distaste for sourness would translate to espresso. I started with a list of twenty-five cafes that my friend and barista Yukimim put together for me. I went to all of them (in four days!). Of all the cafes I visited, one place really stood out as extraordinary: Bear Pond Espresso.
Bear Pond is the home of barista-owner Katsu Tanaka, an 18-year New York resident who recently moved back to Tokyo and opened shop. Tanaka — who doesn’t allow another’s hands to touch the espresso machine in fear of lack of consistency — closes the doors to Bear Pond at 2pm. “After 2pm,” he explains, “too many people come and I cannot make consistent coffee.” Bear Pond’s shots, really a pseudonym for Tanako’s since he is the only barista, are remarkably consistent.
Tanaka’s penchant for chocolate and nutty flavor drives him to pull shots at the higher end of the temperature spectrum, and to roast his beans slightly darker than normal. “If you make a line where the left is acidic orange peel and the right smooth chocolate, Bear Pond is all the way on the right,” he explained with a pen and paper, nearly touching his pen to the end of the right side of the line. “Bear Pond is about smooth chocolate.”
Watching Takana pull a shot from his La Marzocco is a bit like watching a pianist practice: his voice goes silent, his hands run across dials and levers and his eyes never leave the twenty three gram basket. Any questions asked during this time are deferred until after the shot is extracted.
The resulting espresso is no more than a few dribbles of syrupy coffee — no more than half an ounce — with streak marks (“angel stains,” as they’re referred to by aficionados) dotting the sides of the pristine white espresso cup. The flavor is remarkably toasty and chocolatey, like sipping liquid raw cocoa powder. The finish is smokey — almost like toasted bread — and it delightfully lingers in the mouth for some time after.
The cappuccino and latte at Bear Pond are reversed. I didn’t quite understand why this is the case but a cappuccino here has slightly more milk than a latte and overflows from the cup. A latte, with about 1oz less of milk, leaves about 1cm clearance between the surface and the rim. After getting a bit spoiled from Cafe Myriade which uses a separate grinder for espresso and milk-drinks to allow for different grain sizes, extraction times, and volume, I thought the cappuccino here was a little diluted. Likely a personal taste, however. The milk art was gorgeous.
Bear Pond’s macchiato was excellent, a testament to how whole milk can really accentuate the flavor of concentrated chocolate. With just over an ounce of milk, this was a pleasure to sip.
Bear Pond also serves a “Gibraltar,” a drink coined by Blue Bottle after the small 3oz glass tumblers by Libbey Glassware. The drink is essentially a super-sized macchiato with a single shot of espresso and 2.5-3oz of milk. The volume of milk combined with Bear Pond’s unique half-ounce espresso shot made the ratio on this drink just right. It was also visually stunning. Since the sides of the glass are clear, it was impossible to hide imperfections in the milk foaming.
It should be noted that some coffee drinkers prefer a brighter more fruity flavor profile. Bear Pond is the complete opposite. There is very little acidity in all of the shots pulled here. The flavor, in contrast, is rich and full-bodied.
I’ve often heard that chocolate and nut-tasting espresso is more forgiving than its acidic and fruity counterpart. This would explain why most espresso roasters put these beans in their house blend, to mask imperfections in the extraction process. Whether that be true or not, I found ample complexity in the espresso here. The high temperature of the roast and extraction added a very subtle toasted flavor that went amazingly well with the chocolate. The flavor was like drinking toasted almonds in dark chocolate, really impressive and particularly unique.
And so my quest to find the best espresso in Tokyo ends here. Bear Pond really does everything right. Its meticulous attention to detail and unwillingness to sacrifice quality for quantity ensure a level of consistency that is very difficult — if not impossible — to come by. I’ve never even heard of a shop that only lets its owner pull the shots. I found myself wanting to return to Bear Pond daily.