How Is Coffee Brewed In Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Alvin asks:

I noticed that in many anime series, characters are depicted brewing coffee either by pouring hot water over the grounds in paper filters or using instant coffee in homes and shops, including coffee shops. Are coffee brewing machines not that prevalent in Japan, just like clothes drying machines?

Japanese kitchens are small, especially in apartments. There really isn't enough space to have a bunch of kitchen gadgets around that only do one thing. Most Japanese kitchens have a hot water boiler/dispenser (for making tea, instant ramen, and other things that require hot water... but mostly tea) and a rice cooker/warmer, and maybe a microwave, and that's pretty much it. Additionally, most people are only making one cup of coffee at a time, so a full size coffee maker would be a waste.

So if you're having coffee at home, chances are you're using the pour-over method for brewing. Pour-over method is just pouring hot water over some grounds placed in a (usually porcelain) funnel with a paper filter. At first glance, this just looks like a poor-man's attempt to replicate a drip coffee maker, but any coffee otaku will tell you that it tastes much better, due to some subtle differences.

First, before you put the grounds in, you wet the coffee filter, and discard the water -- this eliminates a slight papery taste. Second, when you first pour the water over the grounds, you wait for a bunch of bubbles to rise to the surface before continuing to pour more water on top. This is carbon dioxide escaping. After 30 seconds or so, the bubbles will dissipate, and you can finish by gently and slowly pouring more water on top of the grounds in small circles, being careful not to let the water level drop below the top of the grounds until you're done pouring. If your funnel is big enough (or you're using a special funnel/decanter glass like a Chemex), you can just fill the water to the top of the funnel and walk away until it's done brewing.

It's a very small additional amount of work -- especially if you already have hot water handy from a water heater -- for a much better cup of coffee. It blows the hell out of most drip coffee (especially if you grind the coffee fresh right before brewing), and just demolishes anything that comes from a Keurig cup. And what's more Japanese than attention to fine detail?

Fancy Japanese coffee shops often go one step further. While espresso and espresso-related drinks are popular in Japan (you can get a latte or Americano coffee in most nice coffee shops), some shops will brew your coffee in front of you using a fancy, yet delightfully old-school Siphon. A siphon uses a Bunsen burner to boil and evaporate a small amount of water from a glass bulb, which then collects into a hopper compartment above. At the right temperature, coffee is added and the heat is removed, which then filters and drips back down into the bulb below, and served.

Coffee from a siphon brew is known for being very mild and "tea-like" in flavor. It does take some time to brew, so it's really just reserved for the fancier places. It's been depicted in anime quite a bit, most notably in the 80s classic Cat's Eye, where it was the preferred brewing method at the eponymous coffee shop.

Sadly, I found out a few years ago that I am allergic to the natural oils found in coffee, so most of this article is written in bittersweet memory of my coffee drinking days.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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