Bear Pond Espresso
>>MAP
2-36-12 Kitazawa
TEL:
03-5454-2486 東京都世田谷区北沢2-36-12
I'm done. The search for transcendent espresso in Tokyo is over. I might just retire this blog. Really. Opened in April 2009 by Katsu Tanaka, Bear Pond simply blows away all Tokyo competition when it comes to espresso. Period. There's quite a back story here. After 18 years in NYC as a certified barista and trainer with Counter Culture and Gimme! Coffee, Tanaka moved back to Tokyo to open his own shop with the help of his wife, Chisa. He walked the neighborhoods and found an old candy shop in Shimokitazawa whose owner wanted out (though she remains his landlady). Why "Bear Pond"? It's a lake in upstate New York for which the Tanakas have a fondness. More importantly, the characteristics of bears (the animal) suit what Tanaka is trying to do in giving Tokyo a taste of true espresso. In other words, his ristretto-type shot (I'm judging my shots were well under an ounce of liquid and Tanaka uses about 20 to 22 grams of beans per shot) is not for everybody. With ursine-like ferocity, Tanaka's shots will bowl you over with everything a "god-shot" (credit to Mark Prince of Coffeegeek) should be. Does Tanaka give a damn that his shots might not be to the tastes of most Tokyoites (who are used to a more watered-down version of espresso)? No. Not a bit. He knows exactly what he's after and doesn't want to compromise: a chocolaty bomb of a shot with hints of spice and salt. He told me, "I'm a bear and my espresso is only for other bears!" Smiling, he went on to say, though, that a bear generally tends to get along quite well with other bears. Tanaka's beans are provided by specialty roaster Nori Yoshimi. Bear Pond has a semi-exclusive relationship with Yoshimi for a reason: Yoshimi only trusts Tanaka and a few other baristas with his beans.

First Visit: September 3, 2009

22 comments:

Jeremy said...

THIS is what I have been craving. Thank you for the post. My mouth is watering...

Tokyo Espresso said...

It's what we've all been craving, Jeremy.

Ted Lemon said...

Thanks for finding this! I spent last week in Hiroshima, where I was unable to find any good espresso (didn't really have time to search). Then spent yesterday in Tokyo, so I decided to see if I could find Bear Pond. After a few false starts I got it, and the coffee put a big smile on my face. And what a lovely neighborhood!

Tokyo Espresso said...

I'm glad you found it, Ted!

Judson said...

Thanks for the review, can't wait to get some proper spro on my trip. Do you know their hours?

Tokyo Espresso said...

Open 9:00-18:30, Closed Tuesday

Jon said...

Very disappointed to say that I walked by here last summer, identified from the appearance that it should be great, and didn't drink anything because of the line. Maybe next time I get all the way over there...

Luke said...

After doing some research and reading this review about Tokyo`s best espresso, I ventured through the falling snow, a rare moment in Tokyo, found my way through the back streets of Shimokitazawa without much difficulty, through the sliding doors of Bear Pond into it`s inner warmth and ordered a highly anticipated espresso!







That`s where things went wierd, waaay wierd! Since Katsu was not working the machine and not in the building, espresso was `not on the menu`, but I could try something else on the menu. I looked at the machine, yep, beautiful and ready... beans, yep, plentiful and ready in the Mazzer grinder... staff, yes, 2 of them...



Espresso? No.



Confused and dazed, literally I stepped aside to let someone else order `from the menu`. After gathering my wits, I approached Chisa again. We both agreed that communication was an issue too, we didn`t seem to quite understand each other, like how I just wanted an espresso so I could see for myself just how good their standard was, and she was doing her best to show me how it clearly indicates on the menu espresso isn`t an option (she took the time to show me the `other` menu for when Katsu is in, which DOES have espresso). Ok...



At this point a shot was pulled, and I jumped on my chance! What`s that, I asked? It`s for a macchiato; It`s with milk, she explained. Can`t you do one of those and skip the milk, I asked? No. And she went on to explain why... all of it offensive and irrelevant to a fellow barista. I came because I love coffee, particularly espresso coffee, and I have a healthy understanding of it too. To be told that if I didn`t like it I could open my own cafe and do it anyway I liked it, was, um, even by Australian standards... offensive.



So, in the end I ordered an espresso macchiato, which was pleasant but not even an authentic espresso machiatto - being filled to the top with milk, not just `marked`. In my continued quest to try and taste Bear Pond`s coffee untainted by milk I explored my options again... Americano or Single origin (french Press). I made the utterly disappointing choice of Americano. I just gave it back 2 sips later.



Consistency, consistency, consistency... run your business anyway you want, but if you don`t do it with a degree of consistency... forget it. To be consistent with seperate menu`s to include or exclude your main product just blows my mind... such a perverse arrangement Bear Pond and Katsu have. At least just close your doors if you`re not there rather than dilute your espressi because you`re uncertain of it`s quality but still serve it anyway.


To be fair I will return in the hope that the `master` is in, so I can have one of those macchiatos without the milk.

Luke said...

Today I returned to give Bear Pond a second chance. Katsu was in today, lucky me. The master was however giving an interview, I guess about how great his espressi are. I would have waited till he finished, but instead, after Chisa brought me to his attention, Katsu took the time to point out the same `other menu` and recommend a different place to get an espresso.

I was threatened with a call to the police over and over if I didn`t leave (threats I like to ignore) and then quized if I thought an espresso macchiato without the milk is an espresso. I answered yes. I was then told they doubt I could really be a barista!?

This is how they treat a customer who asks for their benchmark product? Sorry, but no espresso can be so good to be treated so poorly. Shame.

I did go to Nozy Coffee near Shibuya in my quest for Tokyo`s best espresso. Excellent! World class. My faith restored.

Mike said...

Thanks for your blog! I would never have found Bear Pond otherwise.

Katsu has really changed my idea of what an espresso can be. I've started to buy his beans and am now making making triple shot ristrettos at home now on my Rancillio Silvia. My shots are not quite as good as Katsu's shots, no doubt, but they are still quite amazingly good.

I have a funny story to relate. One time when I was at Bear Pond, a Spanish tourist asked Katsu for an "iced espresso". Katsu asked the guy where he had seen this drink before and how was it made. The guy was not very helpful in his description, so Katsu cracked an ice cube, put two of the pieces into a shot glass and pulled a ristretto over it. It looked awful, but the guy happily drank it and commented how good it was. After he left, Katsu and I just looked at each other dumbfounded. I don't think your going to ever see iced espresso make it onto the Bear Pond menu.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, I had an experience somewhat similar to Luke's, just about a year ago. I rode my bike an hour to visit Bear Pond on a sunny spring weekend. I got there a little after noon. The owner and his wife were working at the time. All of the customers around me were drinking what looked like lattes.

When I got up to the front of the line I tried to order an espresso. The two behind the counter gave each other a weird look, and then the owner tried to explain to me in English that they don't serve espresso shots after a certain time on weekends because it gets too crowded. (If it's too crowded, wouldn't an espresso be the best thing to serve? It's quick to make, only takes seconds to drink, and I would have been in and out a minute, unlike the other customers who were slowly enjoying conversation with their lattes.)

I'm fluent in Japanese, I ordered in Japanese, and I'm not sure why the owner insisted on trying to speak to me in his less than comprehensible English, but it certainly didn't make the exchange any easier.

At any rate they said they wouldn't serve espresso, so I said OK and apologized, and stepped back to let someone else order. Then I looked around again at all the espresso drinks the other customers were drinking. I walked back up to the counter and asked if I could order an iced americano. They made it without flinching.

At any rate, maybe they felt they had a good reason for what they were doing, but nothing about their explanation made any sense to me whatsoever. It just felt like they didn't want me drinking their espresso. The only other time I had an espresso experience like this in Tokyo was when I went to Double Tall and some racist servers there made inappropriate remarks to me and another customer, invented some weird rules about us needing to order food and desert and etc. in order to get a coffee, and ultimately refused to serve us at all. I never went back to Double Tall.

I haven't been back to Bear Pond either. I don't know what the issue was, but the "no espresso" rule obviously made no sense, and honestly I did not feel welcome. It was a _huge_ contrast to the professional, friendly service you can get at most of Tokyo's other highly-rated cafes like Paul Bassett and Fresco.

Bear Pond's americano was not awful, but not worth the trip. Maybe on par with a Zoka, but a little more sour. Definitely not the best I've had in Tokyo, and it certainly didn't live up to the wonderful smells coming out of the shop.

Considering the less than ideal location, the unwelcoming attitude of the owners, and the so-so quality of the drink they did let me buy, there's no way I can rate this as one of the best espresso spots in Tokyo.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I had mixed feelings about this place. The coffee was awesome. Unfortunately I have to agree with some of the other comments that the owners were bordering on rude. I went there with my wife who doesn't drink coffee and they told us that if I wanted to drink it inside the store, either my wife would have to leave, or I would have to get take away. I got a take away, but it really would have been nice to not have to drink out of a paper cup. The shop was empty at the time.

George said...

Great review there. I can't wait to try this myself.

Please allow me to post a link to my blog where you can read all about espresso and its history: http://whatisespresso.blogspot.com/2011/04/history-of-espresso.html

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the comments above. Coffee is awesome and certainly worth trying, and I've been there several times now.. but the service is always borderline rude. I haven't had any outright bad experiences, but I never feel particularly comfortable there.

Anonymous said...

My espresso was over extracted. Metallic and burnt taste! Very bad experience because Tanaka's wife did not allow any customer to view what her barista was doing. The only reward was that the latte art was good. Tanaka should be there to ensure that this must never ever happen again. Not worth visiting (yesterday).

Anonymous said...

There seems to be another branch in Shibuya now...

http://onthecorner-shibuya.com/

Will go check it out this week sometime.

Anonymous said...

2 out of 3 times I have been to Bear Pond Shimokita Katsu was very rude. But today he was over the top rude, completely passive aggressive over nothing.

In both cases, I politely made an inquiry to certain things in the shop. The first being why is there no espresso after 2 pm? He immediately became irritated and had suggested reasons which didn't make any sense to me, such as: "the air changes after 14:00 and because of the quality of the air after 14:00 we can't serve the same taste so we stop". I too, had travelled far specifically for an espresso. I later made the same inquiry at the Shibuya location, and the staff there had said it was because Katsu only brought in limited amounts of beans daily and it sold out by 14:00 usually.

Today myself and some friends were enjoying ourselves, one of them took a picture. They asked no photos. That's fine. But I tend to be a curious person so on the way out I asked why the no photo policy? Wouldn`t it be free advertising as people talked about being there? Katsu and his wife launched off into a rather rediculous tirade suggesting: I don't know how to follow rules, rules are rules, why do police have rules? What if he touched me, what if he went into someone's house, am I not able to understand rules and privacy!? Eventually his shouting and verbal attacks on all 3 of us had the entire shop cleared out as frightened customers headed out the door. So in the end, he yells at me "you destroyed my business!!".

I think the coffee taste is good, but you'll need to be able to stomach Katus's F*CK-YOU-I'M-FROM-NEW-YORK attitude.

Anonymous said...

my golly! I am fortunate enough to live 5 mins walk from nozy, so also not too far from BP. Even with all of these comments I think I will still try and sample it. Will let you know the quality of the service, as I don't think I am cut out to give the coffee a rating. Is this extra level of "customer engagement" reserved for foreigners or can every one enjoy it?

Kaz said...

Okay. I'm going to leave a comment because I think many things are getting lost in translation.

First, I agree that the owner and his wife are not the friendliest people in Japan. Even many Japanese people are offended and appalled by their mannerism, so at least you can know that they are not racists.

Secondly, he is a typical Japanese "shokunin," who is not concerned with making money, but simply wanting to master his trade at all cost for philosophical reasons. The Japanese word shokunin is defined by both Japanese and Japanese-English dictionaries as ‘craftsman’ or ‘artisan,’ but such a literal description does not fully express the deeper meaning. The Japanese apprentice is taught that shokunin means not only having technical skills, but also implies an attitude and social consciousness. The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin's responsibility is to fulfill the requirement.

The owner tries to work for the general welfare of the people by making shots of espresso drinks that are utterly unique and original. He tries to make professional espresso drinkers to re-evaluate their preconceived notion of what espresso is and what it can be.

By the way, most people who are admired in Japan as "shokunin" are socially difficult people. They can make the community proud by having someone with great talent living among them, but most of them are not concerned with relationship or friendship or money. So, naturally, most of them need a "translator" who can translate what they are doing or saying to others who are not accustomed to being around those kinds of people.

Anyway, so regarding his reason for not making "espressos" after 2PM is very unique. It would be helpful to know that what we may normally call ristretto is what he calls espressos. So, in order to extract his idea of espresso, he modifies his La Morzocco machine daily to achieve his vision. He raises the boiler pressure and drops the water temperature for extraction. His ristretto setting would not be good for making regular espresso drinks. That is why he only makes them until 2PM before it gets crowded. Once the atmosphere of the town changes and more casual coffee drinkers start coming in, wanting to drink regular espresso drinks, he does not have time to readjust the machine to extract his version of espresso whenever people order a single shot of espresso. So, since he calls his ristretto, espresso, he refuses to call coffee bean extraction he uses to make other espresso drinks, espresso. I know it is complicated and it's simply a matter of semantics, but unless you understand his policy and thoughts behind what he does, most people will get frustrated unnecessarily.

Personally, his "Flower Child" espresso blew my mind. It radically challenged my idea of what espresso is. But his other drinks? Besides Gibraltar, I thought they were just average. But that's just me. I hope this post helped some people in understanding why there is a weird policy at their shop.

Anonymous said...

The culturally essentialist explanation of "shokunin" above is amusing. It sounds like something from an Intro to Japanese Culture class at a foreign community college.

If the owner has an artistic or philosophical reason to not make certain drinks at certain times of the day, that's fine. He could simply explain that, or maybe add a note to the website--which says nothing about limited hours for certain drinks--instead of coming up with bizarre and irrelevant excuses that seem to change each time. Translation isn't an issue when both parties are speaking the same language.

I've been here twice, and I don't see any reason to return. The drinks were OK and the attitude of the owners was threatening, to put it nicely. There are much better espressos in Japan made by equally eccentric "shokunin" who are still capable of politely explaining whatever strange rules they may have. Bear Pond is just not an enjoyable place.

Vivian said...

Bear Pond is scary and stressful. I love their coffee and they warmed up to me a bit since I go at least once a week, but nevertheless it's stressful for me to step in there.

I much prefer going to Omotesando Koffee- which is equally good in my opinion, and the barista is so friendly and chatty. Or Nozy Coffee, which has outstanding beans and eye candy working behind the counter. I'll take that any day over stressing and the fear of making a faux-pas at BP.

馬雅烘焙咖啡館 said...

Hi, I'm a roaster & barista in Taiwan. After reading your review, I wanna say thanks for your info. It's really useful to me because I will visit Nozy and Bear Pond with my family during 3/31~4/5 . I wish that will be a good time.

Matthew
Mayaroast Cafe