EMBANKMENT Coffee opened in October 2017 as a sister store to ELMERS GREEN CAFE in Osaka. As a coffee shop that promotes specialty coffee and focuses on the individuality of high-quality single-origin coffee, they have led the specialty coffee industry in Osaka. We speak with Mr. Shinya Ueda, who oversees both roasting and brewing at EMBANKMENT Coffee, but says he is truly a barista at heart. ※ Titles in the text are omitted.
Encounter with coffee in the youth.
The door to the world of coffee was suddenly opened to Ueda. At a job fair in his final year of high school, he happened to visit the booth of a culinary school that trained people to work in cafes. It wasn’t that he was interested in culinary school from the beginning, but he was rather only interested in getting a book gift card that he could get if he stopped by three different booths and listened to their talk.
He was about to leave the event with no prospect in hand, except a book gift card. The person at the reception desk said to him, “If you visit one more booth, we will give you another book gift card.” That booth he went to turned out to be the culinary school he ended up going to later.
“I got interested in the school after hearing about it, I went to an open day there where the instructor taught me how to make latte art. The way he carried himself and the finished product was very cool, and I was completely hooked.”
Ueda decided to enroll in the school on the day itself. Soon after he did, he was sure he had made the right decision.
“It was great to have two or three instructors, who were active in the field coming two to three times a week, to teach us the latest information and what it’s like working in the industry. There were many opportunities to practice brewing in class, and we could do to the fullest since the school facilities were open for us to use freely. It was the first time in my life I was so into something.”
For Ueda, the Japan Barista Championship (JBC) was like the Koshien Stadium for high school baseball players. While he presented about the appeal and profiles of the coffee he selected to the judges, he also brewed coffee. After a lot of practice for the one-shot competition, he ranked a very respectable 40th out of 160th place. A good result for a student.
“A lot of female students usually took the course in the school, but about 70% of the students were boys the year I went, so the school gave the atmosphere of a tough and sports-oriented boys school. I think the reason I had a fulfilling two years and my passion for coffee never went away was that I was able to practice my coffee brewing with my friends when school was out. We went around coffee shops so we could brush up our skills and grow together.”
Investment in the future paid off.
After graduating from the culinary school where he enjoyed his youth, Ueda started working at a cafe that had just opened in his hometown of Kishiwada in Osaka. Although he felt frustrated that he couldn’t devote his full energy to the pursuit of flavor profiles as he was doing as a student, he spent his days off attending seminars on coffee, visiting coffee shops, and participating in latte art competitions. The salary he earned was invested in honing his skills further.
“In addition to my regular duties as a barista at the cafe, I was also in charge of developing new drinks on the menu, so I created the recipes of coffee cocktails, smoothies, arranged lattes that are Instagrammable, and commercialized the products. It wasn’t something I really wanted to do, but I thought that the more skills I had, the better it was, so I was actively involved in it.”
It was three years later in the winter from his graduation from the culinary school that they asked Ueda if he would be interested in teaching at the school. He became the youngest person ever to teach a class after only two years of experience as an assistant at the cafe he worked at since he was 23 years old.
“I think the staff at the school appreciated that I practiced hard for competitions enthusiastically when I was a student, and I was giving advice to younger students. I taught at the school twice a week for four years until March 2021, and I think the skills I was gaining through working at the cafe helped me teach better at the school.”
I was right in the path I chose.
Ueda started working at ELMERS GREEN CAFE at the same time he started teaching at the school in April 2017.
“When I went to ELMERS GREEN CAFE as a customer, their coffee roasted in-house was delicious, but I also thought it was better to buy coffee beans on my own and brew it myself.”
He thought of joining the store and making the coffee better. Ueda, who joined the company with such ambition, met the owner of aoma coffee, Aono, who roasted delicious coffee at the then recently opened Namba branch and he was entrusted with brewing.
With Aono asking Ueda to join him, he got involved in the launch of EMBANKMENT Coffee. Aono was determined to open EMBANKMENT Coffee in spite of the other staff saying, ‘a store specializing in single-origin specialty coffee would not make it in Osaka where commercial coffee blends are popular.’ Ueda had his misgivings at first, but those things he worried about were no longer there after one year.
“Customers ask us for a coffee with no acidity and I say, “We serve fruity coffee with acidity and sweetness on purpose. Would you like to try it?” He provides a presentation about the appeal of single-origin specialty coffee.
“There were many of such exchanges with customers then and we still have those exchanges now. When I see that every customer leaves the cafe after finishing up their cup of coffee, I feel confident that if we explain it properly, customers will be more open to it, and that we’ve made the right decision.”
“To be honest, sometimes the customers don’t know what they like until they try it. If we took a less confident attitude saying, “I am so sorry we don’t have bitter coffee,” then there is no point in running this store.”
“I think it’s important to take an approach to invite them into the world of specialty coffee by telling them about the appeal of single-origin coffee, such as the stories of the producers and diversity of flavors. Once the customers have stepped into the store, it means they are interested in specialty coffee in some way or another.”
Since Aono left the company to open his own coffee shop in 2020, Ueda also became in charge of roasting to carry on the flavor of EMBANKMENT Coffee.
“Even though I can distinguish between good and bad roasting during the three years I spent with Aono, roasting on my own is different. I’m still searching for the best way and I would like to find my own way of roasting while inheriting what I learned from Aono.”
It doesn’t change though who I think is the best for roasting coffee. It’s Aono san (Mr. Aono). When I started roasting coffee on my own, I have come to appreciate the taste even more.”
I want to share good things with everyone.
his love for coffee has never changed, he thought about when he lost the ambition to win the Japan Barista Championship (JBC).
“When I started working here, I met hotel staff, bartenders, sommeliers, and other people who live in a different world from mine. I want to provide customers an experience that shakes their sense about food after drinking coffee.”
Ueda is the head barista and roasts coffee three days a week in his fourth year at the company, but he also thinks about starting his own store at some point.
“I’m feeling that roasting is interesting, but I am a barista at heart, so I don’t think I will become a roaster that the selling point is my roasting skill.” I would like to create a store that delivers a rich food experience through fresh ingredients, and alcohol that have a high affinity with specialty coffee and where you can put faces on the producers.”
After he got involved in specialty coffee where he got to know the producers, Ueda has become more particular about what he puts in his mouth even in his personal life. Not only does he choose products by looking at food labels, but also sources food that is organically-grown and with fewer additives from his friends who run grocery stores or online.”
“Even if I can’t afford to buy expensive things or indulge in extravagant activities, I think our lives would be richer if we could enjoy luxuries like drinking natural wine together with friends and eating as much delicious, safe and fresh vegetables as we want.”
During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, he closed the store for two months while appearing on his YouTube channel. He broadened his horizons and made new connections with people within the coffee industry and ordinary coffee aficionados alike, while showing people delicious coffee recipes and brewing methods on YouTube.
“I was inspired to want to be a hub that connects people together. To put it simply, I just want to share good things with everyone. In the end, the reason why I am recommending single-origin specialty coffee in our store is that I strongly believe that people are missing out greatly if they don’t know about such great coffee. They may not like it after tasting it, which is totally fine, but I just want them to try having a cup of single-origin coffee.”
Baristas brewing in front of people might seem to be performers just to fascinate people at first glance, but they are essentially people who are educating others. Ueda’s message will probably continue to awaken the senses of someone who has not yet opened the door to the world of single-origin coffee.
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi.
“It’s becoming my routine to go to the coffee shop of my friends in a rotation on my day off. There is no better moment than drinking coffee brewed by my friends. It makes me feel very calm when I am sharing my thoughts and feelings with like-minded individuals through coffee.”