In July 2020 during the Covid-19, aoma coffee opened in a corner of the business district in Semba, Osaka. There are only a few seats in the coffee shop which is very similar to a coffee stand. We interviewed the owner, Mr. Hiroshi Aono, who said, “I place importance on “adjusting” in roasting.”
Creating a well-balanced store
Aono states, “I don’t like to serve customers formally. I like udon noodles, so I often go to an udon eatery in Kagawa prefecture. “What do you want to do next, man?” I like the friendly service of the middle-aged ladies.”
Such Aono’s idea is reflected in aoma coffee which is very similar to a coffee stand. When the store first opened, there were about four seats prepared but Aono decided to put only simple stool chairs to make it feel more casual. Many customers stop by after having a meal at a famous standing-udon eatery nearby.
Aono, who wears relaxed clothing such as T-shirts and shorts in the summer, got his inspiration from a scene he witnessed in Melbourne, Australia where coffee culture is well-developed.
Aono states, “The quality of coffee served at coffee shops is so high that some people go to the shops just to drink coffee. They order their favorite coffee from their favorite baristas and the customers have another two or three cups of coffee. Above all, I was impressed that the customers and staff are equal to each other and staff serve customers in a pleasant and friendly manner.”
For Aono, his emphasis in roasting is to “adjust” the beans.
“I try to make the most of the character of the coffee (green coffee beans) while balancing the other elements of taste. Roasters who serve specialty coffee often say that they are trying to bring out the character of the coffee, but I think it is important not to bring out too much of the coffee’s character.”
“I think it is also important not to overdo the coffee’s character because if you make the most of the character of the coffee that has a strong flavor, you may end up drinking a coffee that is hard to finish; even if the initial impression is good. I think it is also the job of a coffee roaster to make such coffee easier to drink. Rather than trying to bring out the character of the coffee, I try to give them a push. When I say “adjusting,” I don’t mean to say that the only thing I need to do is understanding coffee but think about the overall balance.”
Fascinated by light roast coffee
Aono, who is 44 years old, first entered the world of coffee when he was 30 years old. He had never worked in a food service job before but with the idea of running a café in the future, he moved to a company that runs a food service business where there is a division for operating cafes.
Aono states, “I didn’t really like coffee and I was more of a tea drinker. I thought everyone was putting up with drinking bitter coffee. Even when I drank espresso served at the café I was assigned to, I didn’t think it tasted good because it was like medicine.”
While visiting cafes and coffee shops in Kyoto, Aono encountered a coffee that changed his perception about specialty coffee roasted at a coffee shop.
“It was fresh and sour at first, I didn’t think it tasted good but I was intrigued by its taste, which was completely different from the bitter coffee I had been drinking. It was a while later that I found out that the coffee I had was light roast coffee. As I continued to drink it, my palate became more and more accustomed to it and I began to find it delicious.”
It was a natural progression for Aono, who was absorbed in the world of coffee, to want to work in a specialty coffee shop and try roasting coffee. He moved on to work at ELMERS GREEN, which operates several cafes in Osaka. He began his days roasting beans as the light coffee roaster for the store, which started roasting its coffee at the shop.
Being convinced of the potential of light roast coffee, Aono began to make a direct appeal to the company to open a coffee shop specializing in light roast coffee within central Osaka after the second or third year of working there.
However, this was before the arrival of Blue Bottle Coffee and the coffee boom known as the third wave boom had not yet arrived. The company did not accept Aono’s proposal stating, “No customers will come to such a store.” It was five years later in October 2017 that he finally got approval to open a store called EMBANKMENT Coffee specializing in light roast coffee.
Aono states, “I was regularly having conflicts with other employees until I reached to get the approval from the company. In a company full of people who like classic-style coffee, I was the only one recommending light roast coffee. I’m the type of person who gets excited when I don’t have anyone on my side, so I was very stubborn and I think I caused trouble for the people around me. I’ve become more rounded now and can accept dark roast coffee is one type of coffee even though I don’t want to carry dark roast coffee.”
A new life brought by coffee.
Aono’s previous job was as a dyer. After graduating from a university that teaches degrees in Designs, he went to work for a dyeing house in Kyoto so he can learn specialized skills. He spent all day at the dyeing factory working in silence, not talking to anyone.
Aono states, “I didn’t have anything to aim for at the time, so I just did my work like a machine. I felt good to be able to lose myself in the work and I was satisfied as long as I got paid for the work and could eat and buy what I wanted.”
However, as he approached the age of 30, he began to question whether his life would continue as it is and the desire to live a different life in his 30s brought Aono to coffee.
After working with the coffee, he began to think about the food he ate and drew a clear line between the good food and the bad food. As I became more conscious of the taste of coffee, I started enjoying food.
Aono states, “One of the things that have changed was the way I interacted with people. I liked to concentrate on something by myself but I found that I preferred to be surrounded by people. I have made many friends in the same industry, not only in Osaka but also in Tokyo and Fukuoka.”
In search of the equal relationship
Aono had a coffee origin trip and visited Colombia for ten days in 2019 and this experience has been etched on his mind. As he interacted with the local people, his assumption about the people in poor countries struggling to survive by producing coffee was completely overturned.
Aono states, “The producers and exporters seemed to be enjoying their lives and the people in the exporter’s office see each other every day, but they hugged each other every single day. I could feel the passion and pride from the producers whose eyes shined brightly, that they could produce delicious products.”
“What I realized when I was shown the richness by them, which I didn’t know existed, was that it was presumptuous to want to do something for them with coffee. I felt that there was no point in being involved in the coffee unless I could build an equal relationship with them and have the same perspective as they have.”
It’s been a little over half a year since he opened aoma coffee in July 2020 amid Covid-19. His current goal is to make his coffee shop the place where he can buy a good amount of coffee regularly from the specific producers.
Aono states, “I would like to increase the number of producers I buy the beans from year after year. After about eight years of roasting, I have some producers that I want to buy beans from, and one day I want to visit them and say, “Actually, I’ve been buying your beans for about four years.” To do that, I would like to hire people and build a team that can boost the aoma coffee brand and makes it a business where money circulates properly.”
“Thanks to coffee, I have become a people-oriented person and coffee has opened up my life that had been closed off,” says Aono.
Aono states, “When I was a dyer in my 20s, I longed for an artistic way of living a life. When I look back at that time, I feel embarrassed because I used to think that if it were coffee, I would have made it taste like this. But I also think that I am here today because of that time.”
Aono, whose current mission is to move the emotions of people with delicious coffee and this experience to the future of coffee, doesn’t show any bit of himself from the past.
“If the customer says, “It’s delicious,” after I try to balance the beans as a result of also taking advantage of the character of coffee, that’s all it matters. It doesn’t matter whether the reason for saying “It’s delicious,” is my technique or the green coffee beans itself.”
The individuality of aoma coffee may live in the harmonious world created by having an equal relationship.
The text was originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi.
When I am making coffee to drink with my wife in the morning on my days off, my two and a half years old son, who is interested in pour-over brewing, comes up to me. I mainly grind beans I get from my friend’s roastery using a coffee grinder for home and brew it using a HARIO V60. I don’t give much thought to it. I just brew it casually so that I don’t forget the presence of the customers.