34 Comments January 12, 2011

Bear Pond Espresso

世田谷区 北沢2-36-12, Tokyo, Japan, Official Website

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.

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  • ChuckEatsJanuary 13, 2011 at 1:45 am

    not sure if you saw my tweet, but next time, try the coffee at Le Chocolat de H in Roppongi Hills. besides having some of the best chocolates i’ve tasted, their coffee was also among the best. [if you did try it, what did you think?]

  • AdamJanuary 13, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Ahh man that’s the problem with Japan: too many places! I went to Le Chocolat de H during my last trip but for the macarons; never tried the coffee there. I hope next time.

  • Meister @ The Nervous CookJanuary 13, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    Katsu is a gifted barista, a gentle soul and an incredible coffee diplomat — I’ve cupped coffees with him dozens of times, and he always gets right to the heart of the flavor, capturing delicate aromas and flavors, and nosing out nuances that are just spot-on.

    I’m so glad to read that you loved Bear Pond. Go, Katsu, go!

  • AdamJanuary 13, 2011 at 8:06 pm

    He sure is! I loved this place. My only complaint is that it’s so far away. Glad to have come across your blog!

  • Bean...March 15, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    Sounds like an amazing little place, but also a bit mad and backwards. Sticking to one style off coffee, closing halfway through the day because your busy and letting noone else do the coffee becaus eyou are paranoid about quality seems to be well beyond the perfectionist side of things no?

    Also, even with a dark roast chocolate style espresso, a half oz pull will still drop alot of the good flavours in any bean?

    I’m quite curious to visit this little establishment.

  • AllenJune 7, 2011 at 2:03 am

    I discovered B.P.E through your blog, and now will be going to Japan in July. My most important stop, B.P.E! Can you recommend a few other coffee shops worth going?

  • AdamJune 14, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    Hi Allen — Glad to hear you’ll be visiting Bear Pond. I can still taste the distinct toasted flavor — you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about in a few weeks. I’d also check out:

    Sol Levante (amazingly cool barista, too)

    Taibo Coffee (Neru-style drip)

    Tsuta Coffee (Neru-style drip)

    Potluck at Opening Ceremony (in the basement… serve Stumptown!)

    Nozy Coffee

    Hope this helps. E-Mail me some pics, please. Send my regards at Bear Pond!

  • AdamJune 14, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Also had some great espresso at:

    Paul Bassett in Shinjuku:
    東京都新宿区西新宿1-26-2 新宿野村ビルB1

    And for the traditional Parisian experience in Tokyo, check out:

    Cafe Anniversaire

  • AllenJune 20, 2011 at 3:39 am

    Thx Adam! Will do so and update when i return.

  • AllenJuly 18, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Bear Pond was awesome. Katsu and Chiza are super nice. The espresso and the “dirty” were really unique and tasty. Also checked out Streamer in shibuya and Nozy Coffee, both great visits for specialty coffee. Thx for your post!

  • AdamJuly 19, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Hi Allen — Glad you enjoyed Bear Pond as much as I did. Katsu and Chiza were really friendly. What did you think about the “toasted” taste of the espresso?

  • AllenJuly 19, 2011 at 9:46 am

    I was amazed by how thick it was and really felt the caramel and chocolate came through without much bitterness. it really set the stage for a great cappuccino and gibraltar. Only with such a thick espresso is he able to make an unique drink like the “dirty”. Pretty awesome experience.

  • Christian LeducJuly 28, 2011 at 8:12 am

    I also tried BPE on my trip in Japan two weeks ago. Incredible experience and Katsu is a super nice man. Like Allen, I also tried the Dirty as it was so incredibly hot in Tokyo.

  • AllenJuly 28, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    A friend and I have been experimenting at a coffee shop trying to duplicate the dirty. Haven’t figured it out yet!

  • AdamJuly 28, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    @Allen: Totally agree — it’s a thick and creamy espresso. You could turn that espresso cup upside down and it probably wouldn’t come out.

  • AdamJuly 28, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    @Christian: The dirty wasn’t on the menu when I was at BPE in the winter. Do you have a photo of it?

  • AllenJuly 28, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    After chatting for a while, Katsu turned over an espresso cup that had a little espresso left over, and it just about stuck to the cup. I didn’t take any pics inside the shop, but here’s a picture I found of the dirty. From my recollection, the layers were even more clear!


  • AdamJuly 28, 2011 at 9:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing the pictures. They really take me back. (Especially the one of nearby Hara Donuts :). I loved the vibe in Bear Pond. Did you catch all the anti-photography signs? The specificity of the warnings was pretty funny … literally a guy holding his camera over a cup of coffee with a big circle and red line through it. Only in Japan!

  • Christian LeducJuly 29, 2011 at 8:04 am

    Thanks for the pic Allen ! Oh yeah, it is funny that Katsu takes the “No pic policy” so seriously, but if you as him politely, then you can take the pictures you want.

    He takes his art so seriously, and especially his originality. He is very proud of what he does. And he should.

    Went to Myriade yesterday (I’m a Montrealer). So funny, because the espresso shot is sooooo different. I would dare to say that the BPE’s ones are better ! Maybe it’s the fact that it was in Japan ! :)

  • AdamJuly 29, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Hi Christian — Yeah, the photo policy was kind of funny. But I kindly asked him and it wasn’t a problem. He should be really proud of what he does, that’s for sure.

    Regarding Myriade, it’s funny because I love both cafes; they are so different. Their philosophies are at opposite ends of the spectrum. While Bear Pond looks for the chocolaty, nutty, toasted caramel flavors Myriade likes the lighter and fruitier flavor profiles. Bear Pond raises the temp as much as possible to avoid acidity while Myriade welcomes its subtle bite. They’re very different.

    I’m also really jealous that you live so close to Myriade. I love the vibe in that place (and of course, the coffee). They’re also one of the only cafes that do an allonge!

  • Christian LeducJuly 29, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    You’re right that they are both really good. I like the fact that BPE’s espresso is different than the norm. So I wasn’t expecting that taste.

    About Myriade: Yeah, fifteen minutes by foot from work ! :) Next time in Montreal, I could bring you in other good cafés if you like !

  • AdamJuly 29, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    Have you tried Cafe St. Henri yet? They have a La Marzocco Strada I believe.

  • Christian LeducJuly 31, 2011 at 12:06 pm

    Yes I’ve been there twice. The coffee’s good, albeit not as good as Myriade I would say. I don’t see that much of a difference with the Strada, although the texture was really nice.

    Myriade has from time to time some small bags from St-Henri. I did not try their roasts at home.

    I would suggest that you pay a visit to the new “Flocons d’Espresso” on Mont-Royal Avenue. Small boutique that doesn’t really serve food. It’s mainly about espresso. The owner is the same guy that owns Cafe Neve. He makes good Gibraltars.

  • SolomonAugust 12, 2011 at 11:14 am

    I went there once few months ago and found out the machine is from Blue Bottle. Man his espresso is really good.

  • AdamAugust 12, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Both Blue Bottle and Bear Pond use La Marzoccos. Not sure which model, but they’re a Florentine company generally thought of as making the highest quality espresso machines in the world: http://www.lamarzocco.com/

  • ArneDecember 14, 2011 at 9:03 am

    Hey, Bear Pond is excellent but there are two other places you should visit

    カフェ・ド・ランブル in Ginza which specializes in vintage coffee and コヒア アラビカ who I found are best when it comes to cotton-filtered drip coffee. Adresses and the like can be easily found on tabelog.

    Best regards

  • Patty JamesDecember 28, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    Joe.s was your introduction to coffee?

  • AdamDecember 30, 2011 at 2:16 am

    @Arne: Thanks! Will be sure ot check those places out.

    @Patty James: Joe’s was the first good espresso I’ve had. I didn’t know espresso could taste like that.

  • amyJanuary 24, 2012 at 8:02 am

    had the cappucino a week ago. it wasnt special and i thought the place was pretensious and unfriendly. we werent hipster enough to grace the cafe with our presence. disappointed in the coffee and our treatment. i dont recommend it unless you are cool

  • Markus ReuterMay 12, 2012 at 4:45 am

    Hi Adam. I used one of your photos within my blog post. Of course I linked to your post, under the photo and within my post. You can find it here: http://bettertastethansorry.com/2012/05/bear-pond-espresso/

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