MANLY COFFEE Noriko Sunaga

MANLY COFFEE

Noriko Sunaga

Mother of 3 kids, a roaster, and a business owner. Why does she aim to be one of the best in the world?

Manly Coffee, surrounded by many old houses, stands in a narrow alley in Hirao, Fukuoka in Japan. The proprietor, Noriko Sunaga, won the Coffee Ambassador’s Cup during her time working at Starbucks and went through training in Seattle. At the Roastmasters Championship, she participated as a member of the Kyushu team and won the judges’ division. She was also a key player in organizing the AeroPress Championship in Japan.

We asked Noriko Sunaga, a pioneering female roaster and the “Mother of AeroPress,” about her coffee career, as well as her thoughts on coffee. *We will be referring to her from this point on as “Sunaga”.

Background of Manly Coffee

Ms. Sunaga grew up in a devout Christian family.

“When I was a child, I often had the opportunity to get together with all my relatives. After we ate a meal together, my mother would serve us coffee in a cup and saucer. I was allowed to join the adults by adding a lot of milk to my coffee and the lively atmosphere and the aroma of coffee still lingers in my mind.” 

Sunaga, who had entered a convent to become a Nun, became a junior college student and got a part-time job working in the kitchen at a café. At this time cafés were just starting to become popular.

“The aroma and unique taste of coffee, as well as the music, service, interior design, and other aspects of café culture, really drew me in and made me want to open my own café. After that, I went on a working holiday in Australia, where I saw stylish cafes everywhere and people going to their favorite café several times a day.

The name “MANLY” comes from Manly beach in Sydney, Australia. It is where Sunaga met her current husband, making it a place that holds a special spot in her heart.

After returning to Japan, she started working at a bar to study alcohol as well. Just as she was finally allowed to shake a cocktail shaker in front of customers, she found out that she was pregnant with her first child.

“A female colleague of mine who is the same age as me called me an idiot. She said I was stupid for getting pregnant at a time like this. Even when I went to the obstetrician, I didn’t feel blessed. It may sound selfish, but I wanted to have my own café. I felt cut off from society, and it was a huge struggle.

While raising her children, Sunaga wrote down in her notebook what kind of café she wanted to open, including the menu she had in mind. While working part-time as a dishwasher at a family-style restaurant, she knew that she could not continue working like this. The kind of restaurant Sunaga wanted to work at allowed her to work on weekends, which was difficult to find. It was then that she found an article about “Roaster’s Coffee Baisen-ya” in a local magazine in Fukuoka.

“There were tons of coffee beans lined up in front of the owner, but when I asked if he could distinguish the flavor of the beans, he answered, ‘Yes, but that doesn’t mean much of anything.’ I interpreted his words to mean ‘the essence of the thing is the important part.’ Those words struck me so strongly, I asked him to let me work there that day. I didn’t even care if he paid me. He told me, ‘Even if you work for free, I’d need to get paid for teaching you, so why don’t you come and learn for yourself?’ So, I decided to visit the roaster once a week, and learned all kinds of things about coffee.”

Then, just as the Starbucks Fukuoka store opened. Sunaga applied to be a staff member and became the first mom in Kyushu to be hired. She felt she had to do her best for the sake of others who might be hired in the same situation as her in the future. The job was such a joy for her, as all her efforts were fruitful. Even during her 15-minute breaks, she copied the coffee resource manual, which describes the history and characteristics of coffee beans, from one side of the notebook to the other with a rice ball in one hand. She tried to absorb everything she could learn at Starbucks. With this in mind she won a corporate contest and became the second coffee ambassador from the Fukuoka branch of Starbucks. which took her to the Seattle training that she aspired for.

“I appreciate Starbucks very much for letting me visit the headquarters in Seattle, even though I was just a part time employee. Mr. Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO, talked about having a big dream, to do what you want with a broad perspective.  When I asked him what was the most important thing to him, he replied, “family.” Those words still stick with me to this day.

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Local and Global. Aiming for the World from Fukuoka

After leaving Starbucks, Sunaga gave birth to her second child. Once again, the path to creating a café was far away, but Sunaga did not give up. She decided to work at a pastry shop to learn how to bake, but all the staff around her were specialists in that area, who graduated from schools or colleges specializing in baking and pastry arts.

“I realized that my specialty is coffee, so I tried hand roasting, which went quite well. In 2007, I sold hand roasted coffee beans at the entrance of a bakery, and received good response from customers, so I bought a 500g hand-roasting machine and started an online store in January 2008.

After that, Sunaga purchased a used 1kg roaster and opened a physical store in October of 2008. Sunaga, who believed hand picked coffee beans are the best, encountered specialty coffee at the first training camp of the SCAJ Roastmasters Retreat.

“Back in those days, there were people who said hand-sorting was a good thing while others said it was unnecessary. I was deeply impressed by the fact that everyone was having fun and talking about delicious coffee. On top of that, the specialty coffee was something I had never tasted before. It tasted so fresh and I thought to myself, ‘What kind of beautiful coffee is this?’”

I begged and pleaded with an acquaintance to buy green coffee in a jute bag for the first time. It was my dream. I was truly moved by the aroma and the luster of the beans when I opened the bag.

“Once you are number one in Japan, your next goal will be number one in the world,” was a word from one of her acquaintances, which made Sunaga start to broaden her horizons and aim to branch out globally. She flew to Oslo, Copenhagen and London where she joined the World Barista Championship (WBC) as a volunteer, which had been a dream of hers, and then in September 2010, she participated in the Roastmasters Championship as a member of the Kyushu team and won the judges’ division.

In 2011, Sunaga participated in the Barista Camp. She visited Los Angeles, Portland, Vancouver, and Bogota to learn about coffee in each area, and in the same year, she competed in the World AeroPress Championship in Milan.

“I tasted AeroPress coffee in Copenhagen, which was surprisingly delicious. The AeroPress Championship was a very fair, open, and unique contest. We would each pour our cups of coffee and the three judges would all point to which coffee they thought was  the best at the same time to determine the winner. The audience would get really excited and have fun. Since there were no other Japanese people who had participated in this competition yet I thought, “If I want to be the best in the world, this is the way! This is the way to be the best in the world!”

However, she was not able to achieve the outcome she had wanted. In 2012, the first AeroPress Championship in Japan was held in Fukuoka, since entry into the contest was no longer on a first-come, first-served basis and only national champions could compete.

In 2013, Sunaga visited Nicaragua and Costa Rica to purchase green coffee, and applied for the Nordic Roaster Competition. Although it didn’t work out like she had hoped, she had a chance to talk with James from Fika Fika Café in Taipei, who won the competition. Sunaga had completely fallen in love with James’ coffee and was impressed by his character. Sunaga asked to be allowed to train with him, and James agreed to train her for five days.

Why was Sunaga so intent on expanding globally?

“I was shocked by the coffee community I saw at a barista party I attended in London. Everyone was dancing on the floor, but only the Japanese people were talking to each other by the wall. There is coffee culture and coffee communities all over the world. I thought to myself, “If we don’t have people who can dance here, Japan will be useless, and we can’t just admire others dancing. Hidenori Izaki, who could dance here, later became the first Japanese world barista champion, and I thought, “I need to stand on the same stage and become someone who can have a stronger impact. That’s the kind of person I want to become. 

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Make Milk Brew a Standard Around the world

Sunaga then gave birth to her third child, who turned out to have Down’s syndrome and had a cardiac disease. Her baby was taken into NICU soon after birth and had to go in and out of the hospital often. Her husband asked her to close her store, which made her feel like she was fated to never be one of the top coffee makers in the world that she aimed to be. She realized nothing is more precious than her family to her.

“Every day was challenging. It was a hardship for me, but some regular customers asked me to send coffee whenever I can. I was saved by coffee and my customers. So, I decided to continue the store, hoping it would someday be a workplace for my daughter.”

Sunaga decided to do what she could. She asked her husband to look after their daughter on weekends, and worked by the roaster. She felt relaxed standing by the roaster. For a while, she received orders on weekdays and roasted on weekends. In order to concentrate on the tasks before her, Sunaga focused on coffee that she really wanted to make.

The space she was renting to run her store was set to be demolished, so she moved her store to its current location in Hirao. The second MANLY COFFEE was born.

“When I was out on a business trip to Tokyo, my husband texted me ‘Good luck.’ That was when I felt I could do it again. I didn’t have to just run the store for my daughter. I could pursue my goal to be one of the best in the world.”

She set her sights on becoming a world-class coffee roaster once more with renewed determination. Sunaga, who had reaffirmed her feelings, was presented an opportunity to produce MILK BREW together with Nakashima Farm in Ureshino, Saga.

“Mr. Hirotaka Nakashima, a dairy farmer at the Nakashima Farm, told me that it was delicious when he steeped the cold brew coffee bag into freshly squeezed milk. When I tried it, the impact it had on me was revolutionary. I decided to take the plunge and buy a 15kg Loring Smart Roaster, which I had always dreamed of.

“It has been 13 years since I opened Manly Coffee in 2008,” Sunaga says, “I can finally do what I really want to do.

“I struggled a lot, but I want to let go of my attachments and have fun from now on. Up until now, I’ve been carrying a lot of hardships on my back. But I want to put that behind me now, and be more flexible from now on.”

There is no change in her goal to go global. She showed us her goal, which she wrote on a white board when she moved her store.

“My main goal is to be the best coffee shop in the world by 2028, I want to roast coffee that makes people say ‘Wow!,’ provide ‘amazing’ service, and a wonderful store that brings tears to one’s eyes. I wrote [on the whiteboard], “Manly Coffee is a place where everyone is energetic, pleasant, fun, free, and full of love. It occurred to me that’s the kind of life I want to live.”

“I didn’t become a nun, but as a human being, I hope to share love through coffee.”

I wondered again and again what it meant to be the best in the world. Sunaga is not simply setting a goal, but is putting into practice every day what she can do to make sure it happens.

“Aiming to be the best in the world is something very natural. It’s like a mountain climber who climbs a mountain because it’s there. You just keep climbing until you get old. Wouldn’t it be quite something to be an old lady and be the best? I used to think that you had to sacrifice a lot of things to become the best in the world, but I think it would be really wonderful to become the best in the world while living a good life.

Originally written in Japanese by Eriko Masumura
Photo by Kenichi Aikawa

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MY FAVORITE COFFEE

Every Sunday is smoothie and pancake day. I make smoothies and pancakes for my daughter Riri, a second grader with Down's syndrome, as a fun activity and as a practice for her future independence. When we make the smoothies, we put blueberries, bananas, yogurt, and soy milk in a blender. For pancakes I use Marilou pancake mix and cook them on a hot plate. (If you've never tried Marilou, you should!) My husband and I make two cups of coffee, either Manly coffee or coffee from a friend's coffee shop, using an AeroPress or an Origami. The coffee we drink on Sunday mornings is something I could never dream of doing without.

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