When someone asks you what your favorite coffee is, how do you respond? You may try to explain it in difficult terms — after all, coffee is a difficult drink to describe since there are as many tastes and flavors as there are different varieties and brewing methods. K COFFEE is a kind of shop that lets you push aside all the pretentiousness and enjoy coffee in a relaxed, peaceful state of mind. We’ve spoken to its manager Kazuya Mori.
As you walk a nondescript street in Yamato-koriyama City, western Japan, the retro- and mysterious-looking store suddenly comes into view. Casually dressed, its manager Mori flashes a charming smile as he peeks out of the window of the roastery, a makeover of a former gas station.
“Early on, people often came to me and said that I should repaint the building,” Mori recalls. “But I wanted to leave it just the way it was. I liked the quirky, outdated appearance. This facade attracts curious glances from passers-by who must be wondering what this building could be. Not many people drop in casually. I’m glad that this store has now become a destination for some customers.”
Mori hasn’t always been a fan of coffee. In fact, he was at one point thinking about opening an okonomiyaki restaurant in Osaka. What steered him onto his current path is his experience as a stay-at-home husband and father in Nara, where his family had moved.
“I had avoided coffee ever since I had diarrhea when I was small after drinking a can of coffee. I wasn’t the type to go to stylish cafes, either. So even after growing up, I didn’t drink coffee for quite some time. The first coffee I had in a long time was when my wife took me to a cafe. I was already in my 30’s. It wasn’t like the coffee was so delicious it blew my mind, but more like, ‘Oh, I can drink coffee.’”
For Mori, this experience led to a new life as a coffee shop owner. Running a coffee shop, he thought, would allow him to work while continuing to care for his child.
“My wife and I agreed she would work while I would take care of the house and our child. I had no reservation about being a homemaker. But over time, I grew frustrated about not being able to do anything I wanted to do. I did work a part-time job but earned just 50 thousand yen a month. I managed to make ends meet by skimping on lunch with 100-yen bread. I gradually became overcome with anxiety, thinking ‘I’m already in my 30’s, and what am I doing?’ I wanted to start an okonomiyaki restaurant. But it would be hard to work in the evening while raising my child. That’s how I began to think of doing a coffee shop. Perhaps I was driven by a sense of crisis, a feeling that my life would be over if I didn’t do anything.”
Mori had over five years of experience working full-time at an okonomiyaki restaurant, climbing his way up to store manager. But when it came to coffee, he had no knowledge or experience. To learn how to brew coffee, he attended seminars.
“Once I started to learn brewing, it became more and more fun. I enjoyed doing things like shaking coffee beans in a handheld roaster and watching ground beans puff up as I poured hot water over them.”
To open his own store, he started a part-time job at a coffee shop, where he experienced his first coffee-related job while giving concrete shape to business ideas of his own.
Gas station turned coffee shop
For all his determination to go independent, Mori didn’t have enough funds to open a shop. He spent a long time looking for an affordable place near his home so that he could split time between being a coffee shop owner and a father. And he eventually started a cafe in a shopping street, but only on weekends.
“I couldn’t afford to pay high rent, or dish out a fortune to build a shop from the ground up. So I waited for a chance while doing everything I could to have my own shop. When I was running the weekend cafe, I heard that a satellite shop operated jointly by the shopping street, a university and a local chamber of commerce was struggling to draw customers on weekends. So I offered to help. After that, they started to offer me opportunities to set up a stall in local festivals and events.”
Mori came across an abandoned gas station when he was participating in an event for local residents. The event, showcasing various exhibits at unoccupied houses across the local community, used the gas station as one of the venues. Something about this building struck a chord with Mori, who went on to open his shop there in February 2014.
“I was itching to go independent at that time because I had just bought a roaster. When I found this place, I thought, ‘This is it! So I went straight to speak with the landlord. He gave me a discount on rent, saying that he wanted to help a youngster to vitalize this community. That’s how K COFFEE was born. It wasn’t like I opened my store because I had success in local events. I just found it fun to be able to do what I wanted to do. Since I didn’t have much money, I did most of the renovation myself.”
Serving only favorite coffees
Somewhat on the spur of the moment, Mori decided to start a coffee shop. A down-to-earth person who wants to always stay himself, Mori has produced many funny stories.
“Fashion is never really my thing. I can’t be bothered to spruce myself up. I can’t bring myself to do anything unless it tickles my fancy. It is not in my nature to make a to-do list and act according to it. I’m the whimsical type, just living one moment to the next.
When someone asks me what I want to do down the road, I sometimes say ‘I want to open a gyoza dumpling joint or okonomiyaki restaurant in the future,’ which rubs my wife the wrong way. Every now and then, an interesting idea occurs to me out of the blue, but it goes away just as fast.
I don’t buy into the view that once you make up your mind to do something in a certain way, you must stick to it. I guess I want to stay free because that way, I can act flexibly.”
Even when he talks about coffee, it is hard to know at times if he is serious or joking. But maybe that’s who Mori is.
“I basically think all I need to do is just serve coffee that I think is delicious. Having fun matters more to me than following theory. Once, I got caught up in a chat with a customer and accidentally left East Timorese coffee in the heated roaster. But it turned out to be quite nice. So I sold it under the name ‘Over-roasted Timor’. Some customers actually liked it better.
Having said that, I didn’t have confidence early on and followed some rules like, ‘It is a taboo to put sugar and milk in coffee.’ But if people ask me now which coffee goes well with milk, I tell them, ‘I don’t know because I don’t put milk in my coffee.’
Looking back, the store was clean for the first three months. But I learned to relax somewhere along the way.”
Mori gradually grew confident about his sense of what is and isn’t delicious, after taking part in a community of roasters. Yet Mori stays himself even when he attends a study session where roasters bring along green coffee of the same origin they roasted in advance and score each other’s works.
“They are all top-tier roasters in Japan and prepare their best roasts after many attempts. But I, on the other hand, bring my first try with me. Some roasters take issue with that and tell me to take it more seriously. I only rely on my own sense. I don’t like to fuss over theory or detail. Everyone gives each other’s roast a score. I’m not really into it, either.
Sometimes my roast gets a good score despite me giving it only one go. But when I heard other roasters’ comments on my roast, I realized they noticed something I didn’t, which made me frustrated with myself. But then again, I guess there is a deliciousness that comes from not noticing everything. Some people say that coffee shops should promote their philosophy about green coffee and roasting. But I’d rather relax and have fun.”
‘Anyone can brew good coffee’
Mori opened “Mori Roastery,” an offshoot of K COFFEE, in August 2021. The modern- and sophisticated-looking new shop is a total 180 from the retro appearance of the gas station. Mori Roastery is — as the name suggests — a roastery, only without a roaster. The store sells coffee, roasted beans and drippers and other equipment.
“Mori Roastery looks so different from K COFFEE that everyone asks me if it is run by someone else. K COFFEE is just an entry point that initiates people into delicious coffee. Meanwhile, I started the new shop for those who want to enjoy coffee at home more.
I place emphasis on raw materials. So I’m not really fussy about brewing. You don’t necessarily need a barista to brew delicious coffee. I myself don’t take it too seriously. I want to let people know that brewing isn’t all that difficult. When customers ask me about how they should do pour-over, my advice is simple: ‘Use 20 grams of coffee and 300cc of hot water. Don’t worry too much about how to let it steam or how to pour hot water. Start from there, and adjust the amounts to suit your preference.’ Some customers leave with a disappointed look on their faces. Even when they ask me to share my techniques with them, I just say I have none.”
Perhaps Mori behaves as indifferently as he does on purpose: to make specialty coffee more approachable.
“Coffee is difficult, after all. Naturally, we have to use difficult words to describe it. It is indeed easier to impress customers if we go into detail. But I’m not really convinced of the view that the more we talk about coffee, the more value we can add to it. I’d rather not explain why coffee is delicious.
On the other hand, it’s okay to eat okonomiyaki, say ‘delicious’ and be done with it, isn’t it? There is no need to explore its taste any further. I think I’m more suited to that style. Nevertheless, I’m glad that I’ve been able to stay passionate about coffee all this time. The more I pursue it, the more challenges come up. Coffee really has so much depth that no matter how much I study, I never feel I have reached an end.”
Mori wants to enjoy coffee with a simple, relaxed attitude precisely because he knows how profound and complex coffee is.
There is no single right answer to what delicious coffee is because different people have different preferences. Mori says he wants people to relax and enjoy their favorite coffee just as an everyday indulgence. What appeared to be a mundane experience led Mori deep into the coffee world. He roasts and brews coffee simply to serve a cup he thinks is delicious. Many people will surely be inspired by Mori to find and brew coffee that matches their own tastes.
Originally written by Chiho Maezawa
Edited by Tatsuya Nakamichi
Photos by Kenichi Aikawa
MY FAVORITE COFFEE
I particularly enjoy drinking coffee that I have never roasted before. It’s exciting to meet new varieties. I like to drink coffee someone else brews for me.