The espresso bar LATTEST opened in Omotesando, Tokyo in February 2012 with the concept of sending out the best female baristas to the world. When you enter the bar, you are greeted by a manly interior and a rugged counter made of bare concrete. In there, female baristas make espresso and latte art.
It’s been ten years since LATTEST opened in Omotesando, Tokyo, a fiercely competitive area for cafes. LATTEST currently has six different stores that each have a different theme. We speak with manager Ms. Yumi Munehiro about the past and future of LATTEST.
Pursuing a strong and robust latte
The drinks called ‘Lattest’ and ‘Triple Shot Latte’ are made by pouring cold milk into the specially made shot glass and then pouring rich and brewed espresso directly on top of it. This is because three times the usual amount of coffee beans are used in one latte. Because coffee tends to taste bitter and harsh as the brewing amount increases, the amount of espresso brewed is reduced to ten to twenty ml. By doing this, they are able to use only the best part of coffee, abundantly.
Munehiro states, “When you pour the espresso on top of milk, the coffee oil, which is the oil contained in the coffee beans, causes the espresso to float for a moment instead of immediately mixing with the milk. The first sip will have a taste of warm espresso, but the second sip will follow tasting of cold milk, so you can taste both warm and cold, and then you can taste the bitterness of the espresso and the sweetness of the milk. That is what makes it interesting.”
LATTEST is an espresso bar overseen by Mr. Hiroshi Sawada from SAWADA COFFEE. Sawada was the first Asian to have won the Free Pour Latte Art World Championship 2008 in Seattle, USA, obtaining the championship’s highest score ever. Since then, he has been involved with helping run many cafes in Japan and abroad.
Munehiro states, “When LATTEST opened in 2012 just before the opening of FUGLEN TOKYO in the Tomigaya area, Shibuya in Tokyo, it was a time when the coffee industry was dominated by male baristas. I have heard that LATTEST started because the idea of having female baristas as an icon would be unique.”
The signature drink on the menu, ‘Lattest’ was Sawada’s favorite drink during his downtime, so to speak, his “employee drink.”
Munehiro states, “When he made a macchiato, there was always some milk left at the bottom of the milk pitcher. He felt it was a waste, so one time he poured brewed espresso directly on top of the milk and drank it without mixing it. Seeing Mr. Sawada enjoying making it, the other baristas at the store started to drink in the same way like him. When LATTEST opened, the signature item on the menu was ‘Lattest,’ which is the same name with the store’s name.”
I thought I wanted to work with her even if only for part-time.
Munehiro’s encounter with LATTEST dates back to nine years ago. Munehiro studied biology at university and started working in the pharmaceutical industry, but she felt that office work was not for her and started to vaguely consider changing careers. Five years had passed since she started working with the pharmaceutical company fulfilling the promise to her parents that she would work there at least for three years.
On her way home from a weekend lunch in Omotesando, she happened to walk into LATTEST. Munehiro, who preferred dark roast coffee then, was pleasantly shocked by the taste of ‘Lattest.’ Munehiro felt the urge to contact the manager almost on impulse which led her to start working at LATTEST.
Munehiro states, “The manager at the time was a very friendly and charming person. I was talking with a friend, who was in line with me for getting coffee, about the light bulbs on display in the store that I wanted to buy one of these kinds of light bulbs. The manager overheard our conversation and she kindly told me where she bought it. I was really touched by the fact that she told me that so casually. At that time, LATTEST was hiring part-time job positions. I contacted LATTEST a few days later and asked if I could work there part-time.”
Munehiro started to work at LATTEST only on weekends and worked at the pharmaceutical company on weekdays but it was difficult to master the latte art technique as much as she wanted to when she only worked once a week. After one year had passed, Munehiro felt she wanted to work more closely with coffee and contribute to the store, so she asked the owner of LATTEST to hire her full-time so that she could leave the pharmaceutical industry.
Munehiro states, “I had worked part-time at Starbucks when I was a student, so I knew the comfort and appeal of the coffee space. In the beginning, I was nervous but when people said, “Wow, that’s really beautiful” after I made the latte art or when people said, “That was really delicious” when they were returning the cup, I was so touched every time.”
Learning how to roast at a partner roastery to professionally roasting at LATTEST
With a goal to hone latte art skills, Munehiro became even more absorbed into the world of coffee. Her previous manager was pleasantly shocked by the specialty coffee from GLITCH COFFEE & ROASTERS, a single-origin coffee shop at the Jimbocho area in Tokyo, and she began to interact with the owner and barista of GLITCH COFEEE & ROASTERS, Mr. Kiyokazu Suzuki.
Munehiro states, “I was also interested in roasting. I’ve been involved with coffee for a long time, but I only knew how to make blended coffee for espresso. I wanted to learn more about coffee and try learning about pour-over coffee, so my previous manager helped me explore that opportunity.”
“First, I was allowed to work as a roaster once a week at GLITCH COFFEE & ROASTERS to learn about roasting. In the first two months, Mr. Suzuki stayed next to me teaching me not only recipes but also things like the proper timing for every step of using the roasting machine, how to adjust flame, and how to do the maintenance of roasting machine.”
“I was surprised to learn that coffee shops have a very strong relationship with each other and they are always ready to help one another out when they have any problems. I think Mr. Suzuki’s idea- improving the baristas’ skills and training baristas, who can transmit their skills from Japan to the world, greatly influenced this. In any way, it wasn’t like we were rivals or anything like that.”
“It’s great that he shared his recipes with us without any hesitations. Having said that, even with the same recipe, the taste can change drastically just by changing how much longer coffee is roasted. It changes drastically even if the timing is changed just for a few seconds. There is no way that we can achieve the taste of Mr. Suzuki and his team with the recipe that we have been taught. That’s why roasting is so interesting.”
After two years since LATTEST started roasting, Munehiro took charge of roasting. She put all her concentration into roasting for a few hours a day that made her sweat and nervous every time.
Munehiro states, “The scary part about roasting was that you can’t redo it. I was exhausted every time I roasted. To make the coffee beans taste sweeter, the previous manager used to roast them imagining she was cooking. I used to roast the coffee beans by imagining what was going on inside the pot, like vegetables would become sweeter when they are slowly cooked.”
“I sometimes think coffee is like chemistry. Even when I make drip coffee, I imagine what is happening while it’s steaming. I feel like my background in science is coming into play here.”
In 2019, she rented a space for roasting near LATTEST and started roasting coffee in house, in earnest. With a few additions here and there to the roast profiles, she has finally arrived at the lineup of taste that she currently offers at the store.
“When I was training to learn how to roast at GLITCH COFFEE & ROASTERS, I was only doing medium roast. If I was going to dark roast, the temperature of the roasting machine would have to increase and I was scared, but I had a chance to consult with Mr. Gosuke Jitsu of G P COFFEE ROASTER, which offered dark roast coffee with a sweet taste by a direct-fire coffee roasting machine. After a lot of trial and error, I was finally able to find a stable recipe for dark roast coffee.”
So that each staff member can face coffee with confidence
Later on, LATTEST began to expand opening different stores with different themes. With the concept of coffee and bicycles, LATTEST opened ‘Bike MEGURO’ at Yamate-dori in the Meguro area in Tokyo in 2016 and ‘Bike KYOTOSANJO’ at Sanjo shopping district in Kyoto in 2018. Also, ‘Hair & Makes’ opened in Kyoto in 2019 with the concept of coffee and beauty salon.
In 2020, LATTEST opened ‘LATTEST EBINA’ in collaboration with LA PAN, a bakery that serves delicious bread, and then opened ‘LATTEST MIZUMACHI & SPORTS,’ a bicycle shop that has a bouldering facility and large sandbox made of white sand from Australian beaches.
Munehiro, who became a manager in 2019, was involved in the development of these stores as well as training the staff of LATTEST.
Munehiro states, “Developing the food menu was very difficult, but I felt like I could have a broader perspective on coffee thanks to the experience of developing the food menu.”
“I am not the type of person who takes charge as a leader. I’m more of a person who likes to support others behind the scenes. But I realized one time, that the role of a manager is not only limited to leading everyone. While some staff members aim to win top prizes in various competitions, others want to learn more about coffee. I hope that we can create a team where everyone supports each other to achieve their own goals and each can face coffee with confidence.”
“I think one of the advantages of being women is that we are good at multi-tasking. We can pay attention to many different things at the same time and are able to notice various things in detail. That kind of sensitivity that only a woman can have is still one of the greatest strengths of LATTEST.”
What kind of store does Munehiro want LATTEST to grow into? Munehiro answered, “I want to create a working environment where women can work for a long term. Women inevitably have to prioritize other things like marriage and childbirth that happen in their various stages in life. There are many staff members who have quit working due to facing these different stages in life. We can send them off to deal with different stages in life, and if they choose, they can come back to work in the store any time even, if they have children to raise. I hope that I can create a system for my staff members to feel secure dealing with various life stages.”
Originally written in Japanese by Eriko Masumura.
Photo by Kenichi Aikawa
“My favorite coffee is, ‘Lattest’ at LATTEST that led me to the coffee industry. I have always liked coffee with strong bitterness, but the more I learned about coffee, the more I learned the depth of coffee- many different tastes within the bitterness and acidity.
When I come into work in the morning, I always check the taste of the espresso, Americano, and latte. As my first drink, I often make a cup of ‘Lattest.’ Enjoying the fresh taste, I drink it up with three sips. It’s a very addictive drink.”