“I want to prove that I can do it in Okinawa.” The thoughts of the owner, who has the world’s second-highest roasting skill.
The specialty coffee shop, Mame Porepore is well known for recommending the best coffee according to your taste from a wide selection of lineup. Mr. Nakamura, who is from Okinawa, Japan was the runner-up in the World Coffee Roasting Championship in 2018, a competition of coffee roasting techniques. We interviewed Mr. Nakamura, who says, “I try to roast coffee beans in a way that I can maximize the potential of the coffee.”
Very tolerant; Okinawa’s individuality
Okinawans are known for being relaxed with time, so much so that it has been referred to as “uchina time” which means that they don’t live by the clock. Many people outside of Okinawa prefecture are puzzled by this common sense of not living by the clock, but it is one of the many characteristics of Okinawans and their personality. Nakamura has lived in Okinawa for more than forty years and has been running a coffee shop for more than ten years.
“When it comes to coffee culture, Okinawa is a place where the expression is free. In Tokyo, where quality is more important, single-origin and light roast coffee is categorized as specialty coffee, but in Okinawa, there is no such distinction,” stated Nakamura.
“Some people are fine with commercial coffee (inexpensive coffee for the masses), while others prefer the bitter coffee of an old-fashioned coffee shop. Okinawans are very casual in a good way. If it’s good enough for Okinawans, it’s perfect. That’s why the coffee market in Okinawa is so mixed.”
Okinawa’s coffee culture overlaps with the style of Mame Porepore, which offers a wide variety of beans roasted at the shop, from different origins to different varieties to roast levels, and recommends one particular coffee according to the customer’s tastes.
“I try to roast coffee in a way that brings out the best flavor that reflects on the environment in which it was grown; the individuality of the producers so that each coffee is not too similar to the other. The measure of excellence varies from one person to another person, so I don’t think there is anything that can be said to be “the best” or “the most delicious” coffee.”
“On the other hand, what my staff and I value more than the taste of the coffee is to make the customers feel comfortable when they come into the shop. Since we are selling face-to-face, we want to be a store that listens to our customers and be part of their lives. Recently, as part of our communication, we have been focusing on sharing the thoughts and narratives of the producers.”
Making people happy through coffee.
It was 2010 when Nakamura opened Mame Porepore as a specialty coffee shop. Initially, his goal was to introduce good coffee to people, but after a while, his desire to make people happy through coffee became the core of everything he did.
“The way to make people happy is not only limited to the deliciousness of coffee. I realized that coffee is something that can provide a wide range of joy. When I’m in a good mood, or even when I’m busy and mentally overwhelmed, a cup of coffee can make me feel a little better. I was left with an impression by a female customer one time who was tired of raising her child, she said,“It makes me cry when I am drinking coffee in the morning.”
In 2011, he created a place where people can learn about coffee in Okinawa and has been holding workshops and seminars for all coffee lovers from hobbyists to professionals. (*Currently open only for those who plan to start their business.)
After more than ten years in business, he continues his research to improve his roasting techniques. In 2018, Nakamura won second place as a representative of Japan in the World Roasting Championship, but he is still not satisfied with the result.
“I want to be a player,” he states. “But at the same time, I think I need to develop future generations and expand the way people enjoy coffee. I’m not sure which way I should go, or rather, I’m still in a state of limbo. I want to be useful if I can be useful, but I haven’t fully started to pursue roasting yet.”
Nakamura said, “I only had coffee to keep me awake before studying for exams, and I never liked it that much to begin with.” In his early 20s, while he was backpacking around Southeast Asia to learn more about billiards, which was his passion at the time, he was shocked to discover the taste of coffee he drank at a local shop.
“It was so sweet and yet so bitter. Maybe because I was drunk for my first time abroad, but I was also amazed to know that such a drink existed. That was the feeling I felt.”
“As my curiosity got the better of me, I did some research and found out that the Vietnamese coffee I drank was born as a result of the local Vietnamese people, who were forced to plant coffees during the French colonial period; they found a way to make the bitter coffee taste better, which made me became more interested in it.”
After returning to Japan, he started working part-time at a coffee shop that served espresso, which was rare in Okinawa. He was even more shocked by the responses he received when he served coffee made according to the store’s recipe to customers.
“They said, “It’s delicious,” I’ve been bad at drawing and handwriting since I was a child. I was very clumsy, and I couldn’t believe that I was praised by people, and I had made people happy. It was me who became happier.”
“Ever since I was a child, I was routinely scolded and warned for not being able to do things that others can do easily. In junior high school and high school, the difference between me getting a 1 or 2 on a 5-point scale grade (5 is the best) for diligently working on a project in arts and crafts class and others receiving a 3 or 4 for skipping class to smoke a cigarette stimulated a sense of inferiority in me.”
“When I was a child, I longed to be “normal.” So when I was able to make good coffee, it was the first time I felt like a normal person. That’s when I knew I wanted to make even better coffee so I can make people happy.”
Looking at coffee from various angles.
“Even if I wanted to learn about roasting; no one could teach me in the past when the information was not easily accessible.” He began his journey to find out “What is good coffee?” by taking various approaches.
He got and read many books on coffee. If there was a coffee shop that caught his attention, he would go there and try it, whether it was within or outside the prefecture he lived in. He participated in seminars held in Tokyo and Osaka, which were at the forefront of the industry. He procured green coffee beans from various places, roasted them, and distributed them to his friends and acquaintances to get their feedback. There was no “hardship” in this process, but rather a sense of becoming an obsessive enthusiast as he immersed himself in the process.
“It’s my character, and when I get into something, I tend to get absorbed in it. That’s why I cause trouble to the people around me. When I was in university, I was addicted to billiards and practiced all the time in my free time. If things didn’t go well, I would sink into a bad mood. When I think back on it now, I was hard to get along with.”
Nakamura’s journey from working part-time at a coffee shop to opening Mame Porepore is somewhat unique. He once worked at a bakery for a year and at an interior finishing company for six years to save money to open his own business and he traveled outside of Okinawa to the mainland of Japan to work as a factory worker for about a year.
“I wanted to look at coffee from different angles. Sometimes it is better to change industries to gain a better understanding of coffee. My way of thinking is that as long as you keep the fundamentals in check, the branches and leaves can be adjusted to suit your needs. During my time working at the interior finishing company, I was very much influenced by the strictness of the craftsmen and the way they approach their work.
I felt my clumsiness was a strength.
Nakamura is aware that he is not as driven as he should be, so he aimed to win the World Coffee Roasting Championship, which was around 2014. Even after failing to be qualified within Japan, he was able to achieve second place in 2018, but he still maintains his passion as a challenger.
“Even in Okinawa, where information is scarce, there must be many ways to improve skills. It’s cooler to say that you did it even though you’re in Okinawa and not that you can’t do it because you’re in Okinawa. I’ve always been a child who doesn’t like to give up, but even now as an adult, I still feel that I can do more and want to do more.”
Billiards, which he became obsessed with during his university days was a pursuit of pleasure. For Nakamura, coffee brought a new kind of joy, “the joy of making others happy.”
Twenty years have passed since then, and the desire to fill the gap between him and the “normal” people took him into the realm of the not normal.
He said, “Somewhere along the line, I came to think of clumsiness as not a weakness but as a strength. If I hadn’t found coffee, I might not be where I am today.”
While pursuing the taste of coffee, he also looks at the appeal of coffee beyond its taste. Perhaps, it is this rich perspective that attracts people to Nakamura.
The text was originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi.
MY FAVORITE COFFEE
It’s the coffee you drink with someone. No matter when or where you drink it, coffee seems to accompany you through the time, and fills your heart.