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Artisans in Japan are referred to as shokunin, who dedicate their life to their craft, honing it, perfecting it, giving it the respect as an art form.
In Hong Kong, there is a coffee shop called BEI Coffee. Tucked away in a Sai Kung alleyway, BEI Coffee offers no selfie settings, latte, cappuccino or coffee art. On the menu, is simply hand drip coffee.
Still, customers appreciate it. Coffee shokunin Michael sees his craft as a spiritual discipline, which requires no less that heart and soul.
Coffee is an art, not an additive
“A proper barista puts the customer’s mood and spiritual condition in a cup of coffee,” he states. Coffee is not an energy booster. Rather, it releases you. It provides comfort. It is not an additive that keeps people going. “Be sympathetic. Give your smiling customers something silky something sweet. On a sunny day, serve them a lighter mouthfeel,” says Michael. A good guess can go along way.
But then it is not all guesswork. A leisurely chat with customers is indeed part of the coffee shokunin’s job. It often starts with “What would you like to drink?” Coffee chain customers may only know latte and cappuccino, which are however absent from BEI Coffee’s menu.
“Bitter, sweet or sour? What’s your favourite flavour?” Does there exist a coffee which is not bitter? No idea? Dazed and confused. “Do you like bitter melon or the bittersweet of ginseng? How about a hint of sourness?” A preference will emerge from the answers. It is very much like The Kindaichi Case Files.
“Can’t find out the likes? Avoid the dislikes. Nothing too strong, too sweet or too sour? A little sweetness without the sour tinge may do the job.” A willing customer always welcomes questions. Then, all will be revealed.
Trick of the trade
BEI Coffee has its own specialty – the mood coffee. “It is not just about having a cup of coffee. It is about allowing the customers to experience a deeper dimension by first of all letting their emotions run wild. A mood coffee is made with the right choice of beans and the right music – about eight minutes long. By creating the right ambience, the flavour of the coffee changes. It pleasures your senses.”
Michael concedes that making a cup of mood coffee takes a great deal of effort. The only thing is that he enjoys it. “Hong Kong people chock themselves with pent-up emotions because they do not have the time or mental strength to deal with them,” he observes, recalling a customer who took just one sip of the mood coffee and had to run for the bathroom for a good cry. “That was a 15-minute cry. Just that one sip of coffee hit where it hurt the most.”
Was it the coffee, the music, or the comfort of stranger? It shall remain a mystery. At the very least, people should realise that coffee is not an energy booster. “Coffee is a brilliant actor. There is an image to every subtle flavour.” Michael is looking to create musical signature coffee. “The stage is set, and everyone listens to the same piece of music and drink the same coffee. Can you image the changing tone of the scene and the transitions? The music and the coffee, all in sync.”
Dedication is all
Michael believes that coffee art should impress people in more ways than one. “The credits go to the latte artist. What about the coffee?” To him, coffee is a profession. “One must be able to name a coffee tree. That’s true professional and what specialty coffee requires.” Coffee knowledge makes the profession. Clever packaging has nothing to do with it.
All, starts with the bean selection. People in the trade are aware that Michael buys directly from Japanese suppliers and that he roasts his own bean. His deep roast method originates from Japan and is not common in the Hong Kong market.
After days of roasting, the beans are tossed. Substandard once are picked out and discarded. “The beans change during the process. Cracked beans split during the roasting process and would provide an unpleasant bitter flavour in the brew.” Perfectionist Michael uses only best-in-class beans. “Quality assurance is key to professionalism. A true professional barista shares with the customers the art of coffee tasting without being asked to do so.” BEI Coffee opened its doors to customers in 2013. Michael roasts his beans in the shop at round 8am every day.
His traditional hand drip coffee also has its roots in Japan. “You fold up a piece of cloth, and then in with the powder and water. I adore the flavour and this explains the investment of time and effort in preserving the particular process and culture.”
To make a cup of coffee, he puts the powder in and adds the water gradually according to the condition of the powder, controlling the water strength carefully. The whole process takes about 10 minutes. A small chat with the customer would put another five minutes on top of that. A nice cup of coffee takes about 15 minutes easy.
When BEI Coffee first opened, Japanese curry rice was a constant feature on the menu. “Until one day the curry rice outsold the coffee. Customers came only for a meal and were casual about the coffee. I had to take the rice off the menu.” Coffee remains the star of the show. When the compliments were not on the coffee, he felt a sense of loss.
“I used to live on a loaf of bread a day when the shop first opened. I don’t care so much about making a profit. If you understand why and how I run the shop, then you’ll be better acquainted with the art of coffee. I cannot have everything in life and that’s perfectly fine.” No all-day breakfasts, waffles or coffee art.
There is only coffee. Stay true to your aspiration.
shop address | G/F No.3 Sai Kung Tai St, Sai Kung
business hours | 6 am – 7 pm