The Minami district in Osaka, western Japan, draws people of all stripes, from overseas visitors to fashion-conscious youths and businesspeople. In one corner of the colorful neighborhood stands THE ROASTERS COFFEE SHINSAIBASHI, selling self-roasted coffee to general consumers and about 120 wholesale clients.
Ikko Tenma joined the business in 2017. Now in charge of green coffee sourcing and roasting, he used to work for a printing firm. It was during those days that Tenma fell in love with coffee, and today, he aspires to open his own shop. We spoke to Tenma to delve deeper into the passion brewing within his heart.
Office buildings, commercial facilities and hotels line Midosuji street, a major avenue stretching north to south through downtown Osaka. Tucked a block away from Midosuji is a traditional Kyoto-style townhouse. Inside the two-story building, there are a taiyaki sweets shop, a chiffon cake store and a coffee roastery. The three businesses have their own serving counter but share the kitchen, giving the atmosphere of a “streetside food court”. Up the stairs, there is table seating for indoor dining, but quite a few people also swing by for takeaway.
THE ROASTERS COFFEE SHINSAIBASHI has its own roasting machine, but also rents out a 7-kilogram Loring. As head roaster, Tenma roasts the beans on the premises two or three days a week. Other than those days, he is rarely seen at the roastery. Communicating with wholesale clients like cafes and restaurants is mostly left to other staff members, and Tenma only steps in when his expertise is called upon.
“I’m not around customers often. But because of that, it’s all the more rewarding and motivating when they give us good feedback by email or in an online review. That’s not to say that I intend to go out of my way and engage more with customers. This way, I can keep a distance from customers’ feedback.
It’s not that I don’t care about customers, or that I’m not interested in what they have to say. It’s just that as a roaster, I’m trying to find the perfect balance between doing what I think is right and adjusting to customers’ response.
I regularly go to other shops and try their coffee. This gives me many reference points for my own coffee. There are a lot of good roasteries in Minami, which is also a plus, because it helps me to not only calibrate my roasting, but look at myself from an objective point of view. I’m expanding my horizons to do something extraordinary without deviating too much from the ordinary.”
In 2022, Tenma finished fifth in the finals of Japan’s national roasting championship (JCRC). But even with this accolade under his belt, he is humble.
“I’m not acting humble. I really do think I’m still a novice. By the industry’s standards, I am inexperienced. In fact, when I drink other roasters’ coffee, I can taste something of a depth that only many years of experience can create. I even think I’m the worst roaster in Osaka. And that won’t change even if I win the JCRC in the future.”
“Coffee never gets boring“
Tenma worked part-time at a major coffee chain for three years when he was a university student. But upon graduation, he started a full-time position at a printing firm, where he enjoyed creating something from scratch with clients, rather than selling things that already exist.
His main role was to find new clients. To do that, he started by buying products from prospective clients and studying the attached leaflets and catalogs. Then he identified what was missing from the PR materials, and approached the prospective clients with his suggestions.
Tenma’s love affair with coffee started as a result of an unexpected turn of events. He was in his second year at the printing firm, and to acquire new clients, he was visiting various places. Among them was Doi Coffee in the city of Sakai.
He bought bags of roasted beans at Doi Coffee, not because he wanted to drink them, but because he wanted to win over a new client. But then one day, utterly on a whim, he decided to brew coffee with the beans. He bought a manual grinder and made a cup for himself, and its deliciousness was nothing like he expected.
“The moment I poured hot water onto the ground beans, they flared up as if they had a life of their own. That was very exciting. I guess that coffee was fresher than any coffee I’d ever drunk before. And even more surprising was the fact that different beans tasted different. It changed my perception of coffee altogether, and got me thinking, ‘There must be a lot more fun to be found down this road.’”
In search of delicious coffee, Tenma started to explore cafes. After he took up roasting, his curiosity turned into a full-blown obsession. He tried roasting beans with a handheld net, and the coffee turned out far better than he expected, despite the fact he “winged it,” without even measuring temperature, roasting time or any other parameters.
“That was nothing more than beginner’s luck. If I drank that coffee now, I don’t think I would be as impressed as I was back then. After that first attempt, I wasn’t able to replicate the same level of deliciousness. No matter how many times I tried, I couldn’t, which actually made it more interesting. That’s exactly what pulled me deeper into coffee.”
Roasting coffee at home and visiting cafes became a new routine for Tenma. When he had a day off, he would spend a full day at a cafe. And on his work days, too, he would drop into a cafe while he made the rounds of clients. Scouring online reviews and checking out images, he decided where he would go next. His cafe visits counted at least 200 times a year. And once he found his favorite places, he kept going there and went through everything on their menu.
“I didn’t imagine I would be obsessed with coffee so much. I’d never been absorbed in something so intensely before. But with coffee, I felt like I would never grow tired of it.”
As days went by, the idea of opening a coffee shop grew more and more appealing. Then one day, he found a job advert for a full-time roasting position.
At this point, Tenma was three years into his career at the printing firm. Moving onto the next stage seemed like a reasonable option. But then again, he had a fiancee, and was making the arrangements for a wedding. At a time when he needed stability, changing jobs was a difficult decision to make. But in the end, Tenma took the plunge. And he did so with the blessing of his then soon-to-be wife, who supported his dream to make coffee his life’s work and open his own shop down the line. He joined THE ROASTERS COFFEE SHINSAIBASHI in 2017.
Finding freedom in solitary pursuit
Still, he had his share of concern. In the year before joining the company, he wasn’t able to produce a roast he was happy with. The resulting coffee turned out to be okay, but not necessarily great. After all, he was little more than an amateur at this point. After a month of on-the-job training, he was left to find his own roasting style by himself.
“What I was doing in the early days, I wouldn’t call it ‘roasting.’ It was more like ‘burning green beans.’ For the entire time I was roasting beans at home, I had no one to teach me how to do it. I think that was beneficial in a certain way because I never found out if I was good at it or not. I guess sometimes things work out just fine if you know nothing about what you are doing.”
Days went by as Tenma continued to hone his skills alone, like a hermit living a reclusive life of training on a mountain. Then came a turning point when he attended a roasting seminar organized by UCC, a major coffee firm based in Kobe, western Japan. There, Tenma realized just how he was lacking in basic knowledge about roasting. Meeting other roasters for the first time and watching them as they demonstrated their skills, Tenma had a reality check.
Another turning point came when he took part in an SCAJ contest, where he teamed up with other contestants. The opportunity gave him a chance to not only create a delicious coffee together, but share his concerns and questions with fellow roasters. Through this experience, his horizons were further broadened.
Still, Tenma says that he counts on his own senses as the ultimate guidance. “It’s not that I only trust myself. But it’s that I believe having no mentor or teacher isn’t all bad, and it can also be my strength.”
Tenma will soon finish his sixth year at THE ROASTERS COFFEE SHINSAIBASHI. Though he joined the company with an eventual goal of setting up his own venture, for now, that dream is locked away deep down inside.
“I haven’t delivered any tangible results yet, and there are countless things I need to learn. I’m thankful to the company for giving me free rein to do everything from sourcing to roasting. It’s fun to be able to tackle the challenges on a scale that wouldn’t be possible if I worked alone.”
Once a coffee fan, now a coffee devotee
While Tenma is passionate about coffee today, there was a time when he was at a loss what he wanted to do with his life. One thing he liked to do was to make things with his own hands. In his college days, he would go to a home depot and buy planks of wood and varnish, assembling desks and shelves from scratch.
He always had a perfect space in mind. But with ready-made items, he couldn’t achieve a consistent style. Tenma lived with his parents until after he graduated from high school. But to give himself an excuse to leave their house and live in his own space, he got into a university far from home. Making his ideal place a reality with his own hands was a delight, but not so much as to make it a career.
“I like the process of putting things together rather than admiring finished products. For the same reason, I chose to become a roaster and not a barista, though I do like to brew coffee, too.”
By his own admission, Tenma gets bored easily. In his childhood, he dabbled in some after school activities, but none of them held his interest long. He joined school clubs in elementary, junior high, and high school, but each in a different sport or genre. He didn’t quit any, but that doesn’t mean he came around to the idea of sticking to one thing. Tenma is fickle, and he’s content to be that way.
“I don’t like the monotony of doing the same thing over and over. That goes for the way I listen to music. When I get an album, I don’t go through the songs in the proper order, but shuffle them. It’s the same when I go out to eat. I’d rather try different dishes than order the same thing every time. In whatever genre, I opt for new things all the time because I’m banking on the slim chance that I might hit the jackpot. When it comes to roasting, I also put various new ideas into practice. But I’ve never been able to turn out a batch I’m 100% happy with.”
One of the few “jackpots” Tenma did hit was coffee.
“I go around drinking coffee at various places. That’s my way of holding onto that initial urge I felt when I was exploring different coffee shops back in the day. I don’t work inside this roastery very often. So I’m not fully immersed in this job yet. That’s probably why I’ve been able to stay motivated.”
Even today, Tenma remains a recreational coffee aficionado who enjoys the drink for what it is, rather than remaking himself in the mold of a coffee professional. This detachment from coffee as a profession gives him room to think outside the box.
That said, he says he enjoys coffee differently than he used to. “Now that I can discern deliciousness on a broader spectrum, I can objectively explain why a certain coffee tastes good, rather than counting solely on my own subjective sense. The downside is, every now and then, I get disappointed in a coffee I used to like. But I take it positively, as proof of my growth.”
Once a coffee fan, Tenma is now a professional coffee devotee. Even still, he doesn’t engross himself too deeply in the coffee industry. This distance allows him to think flexibly.
“I’m guilty as others of unconsciously evaluating coffee from a biased perspective. So I’m intentional about doing various things other than roasting in order to gain new inspirations and avoid getting stuck in a small world.
There could be a new possibility I’m not aware of yet. I don’t want to miss it. The taste of coffee comes not just from skill, but from our character and way of thinking.”
Originally written in Japanese by Tatsuya Nakamichi
My favorite coffee is one that someone else brews for me. The deeper the relationship with that person, the happier I feel.