It sounds like white noise, a gentle static barely perceptible over the din of Tokyo traffic that flashes by two floors below. But as you sit there at the bar, it continues to pull you in, until you’re off your stool, wandering towards the source of the sound in the corner. As you walk, it grows louder, at first like the rustle of autumn leaves and then like a rake dragged across a rock garden. You get to the corner, to a small curtain that registers gentle movement behind it, and you pull it back.
An older man with thick glasses and a soft, white tuft of hair is seated at a table. There is a wide, flat wicker basket before him, and he is bent over in the chair, his face close to the surface of the basket, like a prospector sifting for gold. When you lay your eyes on the source of the sound, your jaw loosens and your lips part. The man is picking through a batch of warm, just-roasted coffee beans, one by one, running his fingers over their surfaces like a sinner over a rosary, searching for any tiny imperfection that might pollute his next cup of coffee.
This is not the first time these beans have been picked through. They were sifted once in the Brazilian countryside, before they left the farm. Sifted again at a processing plant on the coast before they filled a shipping container bound for Tokyo. And sifted a third time, exactly 32 minutes ago, before the man with the soft white hair and thick glasses loaded them into his hand-propelled roaster and set about transforming them from pale green cherries into dark mahogany orbs. None of that matters to the man, though, who loses himself entirely in this final act of filtration.
His name is Katsuji Daibo, 66 year-old owner of Daibo Coffee in Tokyo’s Omotesando District, and he makes what may be the world’s most labor-intensive cup of coffee.
For 38 years, Daibo has been transforming coffee from a caffeine fix into a religious experience.
“I wanted to bring the details of the tea ceremony to the coffee world,” he says. This is no small ambition; tea ceremonies go back millennia and involve an intricate web of cultural, religious, and historical practices woven into tea making so methodical that a single cup can stretch on for hours. But for 38 years, Daibo has made good on his goal, transforming coffee from a caffeine fix into a religious experience. But as many of Japan’s master craftsmen seem to be finding out these days, not even the purest devotions can survive eternally. In the case of Daibo, the high priest of roasted bean and muddy water, the enemy is gentrification. The building that houses his shop has been purchased by a new owner with ambitious plans for the future. On December 23rd, Daibo will serve his last cup of coffee to the public.