James Freeman takes Blue Bottle to the city that inspired him.
I am on my way to meet James Freeman, founder of Blue Bottle Coffee, and every inch of Tokyo feels sun blasted and overstuffed — except where he is. Freeman is hunched over a cup of coffee inside a Tudor-style café called Chatei Hatou, a 25-year-old relic of Japan’s bubble-era economy, nestled between a narrow okonomiyaki grill and a basement bar on a hill in Shibuya, one of the city’s busiest neighborhoods. When I step in from the glaring street, it’s like walking into a well-appointed cave. The café is spacious, cool, and dimly lit; the soundtrack is classical; and the white-haired, blue-eyed Freeman has the long 12-seat wooden bar all to himself. It’s his favorite place in the world.
“See, I love that,” he says, breaking off mid-greeting. He nods toward the barista, who wears a necktie and a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. “I love that he warms the saucer. He pours hot water in the cup, then splashes some onto the saucer. It’s more refined to have the saucer the same temperature as the cup.
“If we can learn from that,” he says, “and compete here in Tokyo, that will give us an enormous competitive edge in our markets back in the U.S.”
Freeman is in Japan to oversee preparations for the February opening of Blue Bottle’s first international branch in Kiyosumi, an older neighborhood east of the city center. He considers this out-of-the-way location to be ideal, reminding me that his company was born 12 years ago in an equally unassuming Oakland neighborhood. Today, there are more than a dozen Blue Bottle cafés — in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York — each with its own distinctive look. Earlier this year, the company raised a reported $26 million in venture capital to expand further.
“Kiyosumi’s not glamorous, not hectic,” Freeman tells me. “It’s a little bit old-fashioned, sure. But I saw some young guys riding bikes the other day, and I said, ‘Oh, that one. That bike will be a part of our clientele.’” He pauses, then adds, “The guy, too, of course.”
Growing up in Humboldt County, with its dense forests and plentiful marijuana plants, Freeman gravitated toward the uncool, monkishly pursuing a career in classical clarinet. While his classmates favored AC/DC, Freeman stuck to Stravinsky. “There wasn’t a single person who could relate to what I was interested in. I was totally alone, listening to my Seiji Ozawa records, dreaming about real cities like Boston and New York.”
When he was 19, Freeman finally visited one, filling in for a member of an L.A.-based chamber group bound for Tokyo. He was mesmerized. “Tokyo was just so dazzling,” he says. “All these people living together who knew exactly which side of the escalator to stand on and which side to walk on. That close-knit, harmonious use of space. Everything was alien and new, of course. I couldn’t even read the signs. But it didn’t feel alien to me.”
Coffee was not something Freeman remembers from that first trip to the land of the tea ceremony. Although Japan is one of the world’s top importers of coffee beans, the beverage is often, at best, something to knock back quickly: overly sweetened in vendingmachine cans, watered down in dour cafés, or lukewarm in teacups at hotel breakfasts. The exception (before the inevitable onslaught of Starbucks) was the culture of kissaten: dimly lit, typically wood-paneled cafés emphasizing high-quality food and drink. Hangovers from a once-nascent bohemian culture in the 1950s and 1960s, each is defined by its owner’s particular passions — French New Wave film, for example, or bebop jazz.
Freeman went to his first kissaten in 2007; the same day, he visited nine more. That’s how he discovered Hatou, where the barista now serves me a house blend that seems to bloom afresh each time I take a sip. A single cup costs between $8 and $15, but that seems worth it to experience what Freeman likens to “drinking a mink coat.”
The luxuriant flavor is created using a siphon, a one-cup technology pioneered in France but, arguably, perfected in Japan. In fact, soon after his introduction to kissaten, Freeman, who would here be called an otaku — a geek — of coffee culture, imported a Japanese siphon to his San Francisco café. It cost him $20,000. For iced coffee in three locations, he installed an Oji cold-drip system, whose glass globes recall a mad scientist’s lab.
Many of Japan’s signature values, such as the emphasis on professional discipline and micromanaged orderliness, dovetail with Freeman’s. At Hatou, he rhapsodizes over the bamboo paddles used to stir the coffee, the flower arrangements, the carefully edited playlists. I ask him if he’d consider settling in Tokyo himself.
“Oh, absolutely,” he replies. “That would be so cool. I do think there are a lot of good, solid business reasons for opening in Tokyo. Success here means pleasing the toughest customers in Asia, so our staff will be executing at a higher level. But a lot of this is about, ‘Where do I want to go?’ And I really want to go here.”