Gaku Ito, our local curator, coffee expert, and the head barista at Auer & Co., Zurich, answers all your caffeine-related questions: What makes specialty coffee so special? How is instant coffee made and is it really as bad as they say? Can local coffee shops survive in a world dominated by Costa, Starbucks, and other, larger-than-life coffee chains? Find out all the answers to these questions and more down below!
Despite growing up in Tokyo, Gaku was always more interested in coffee than tea. Which has become, as he explains, more and more common in Japan. ‘Associating Japan with tea is a thing of the past. Today, we actually foster a rich coffee culture. Tokyo, in particular, has a lot of specialty coffee shops. But it’s true that most Japanese drink their coffee black – an American influence,’ Gaku laughs.
Paradoxically, Gaku’s career as a specialty coffee barista – which is associated with smaller coffee shops, but more on that later – started at Starbucks. ‘I worked there part-time for four years during my studies and the barista role really appealed to me. Although the food service industry was tough at first, I loved the exciting environment, teamwork, and friendly interaction with customers.’ But since Gaku studied Tourism and Hospitality at Dokkyo University, he was expected to work in the hotel industry. ‘To prepare for that job, I did many internships: I was working at the reception, providing room service, even taking care of the hotel parking. But the more experience I gained, the more I knew that the hotel industry was not the right fit for me – I didn’t like the distance between me and the customer, which made me feel like a servant. I wanted a position where the client and I would be on the same level.’ The solution was surprisingly easy: coffee!
What Does Being a Barista Mean?
Six years ago, Gaku moved from Japan to London with his partner – and fell in love with the art of coffee-making. ‘The city has an incredible number of specialty coffee businesses and taught me what being a barista really means.’ Since Gaku found the metropolis quite easy to integrate into, he quickly landed his first full-time job as a barista at a family-run coffee shop “The Little One” in Primrose Hill. This specialty café, roastery, and bakery in-one was everything you imagine: a tiny yet popular shop, firmly rooted in the local community and loved by regular customers.
‘Because of the high demand, we worked non-stop. One would think I never got bored.’ But after a year of making the same coffee every day, Gaku was ready to move on. ‘I felt stuck, unable to work on myself and be creative. So I sent out my CV and soon after that joined the team at Timberyard.’
In comparison to his previous workplace, the award-winning café Timberyard (or TY Seven Dials) – named Best Independent Coffee Shop in Europe at the European Coffee Awards in Istanbul – really pushed Gaku professionally. ‘I learned a lot and got to know many interesting people with whom I am still in contact. What made the team great was the fact that we all came from different fields and had different skills we could share with each other. For example, my former boss Phil Groves studied industrial design. Other people had entrepreneurial ambitions: one colleague left Timberyard to open his own coffee shop, another one founded a female barista institution – The Kore Directive.’
When Gaku’s partner had to move again because of work, this time to Switzerland, Gaku was once again looking for a job. ‘Finding a specialty coffee shop was a lot more difficult in Zurich than it was in London, though,’ admits Gaku. ‘But in the end, I discovered a very interesting one – Auer & Co.. at the Impact Hub Zurich.’ Since the Impact Hub is a co-working space, especially interested in a circular economy and supporting startups that strive for a social impact, Auer & Co. is a hip café that attracts interesting customers who want to make a change – and drink Gaku’s specialty coffee!
What Makes Specialty Coffee Special?
The difference between specialty and “regular” coffee lies mainly in the quality of coffee beans. As Gaku notes, not all coffee beans are created equal. In fact, according to the pyramid of coffee bean quality, they can be divided into three main categories.
On the very bottom are commercial, lower-grade beans that have no clear origin – they were probably collected from numerous farms and then sold by a middle man to a distribution company or a roastery. They will often be used to make instant coffee or sold for cheap in big batches at supermarkets.
Then comes the mid-level, which consists of beans used by international brands and big coffee chains. Although these are not necessarily low in quality and their origin is clearly marked, they are still on the cheap side, which allows coffee giants like Costa or Starbucks to buy huge amounts of coffee for a relatively low price.
On the very top of the pyramid are the beans that scored at least 80 points on the coffee quality scale (judges assess the coffee based on its sweetness, mouthfeel, acidity, and other factors) – the only ones that are awarded the “specialty coffee” label. Interestingly, these are usually beans that grow at high altitudes, which renders them more acidic but also spicier, fruitier, and overall richer in flavor. Since they are considerably pricier – harvesting alone is much more demanding at high altitudes, let alone distribution – these high-quality beans can be mostly found in smaller, specialized cafes that don’t need large quantities as large chains do.
Specialty coffee is also defined by roasting and brewing. Specialty coffee baristas know that the wrong coffee-water ratio, temperature, or brewing time can blend and ultimately ruin the unique aromas. ‘The task of the barista is to know how to extract the flavors,’ says Gaku. ‘Every morning, we at Auer & Co. first set the grinder, depending on how coarse we want the coffee to be. Then we check the water temperature – the lower the temperature, the less coffee extraction. We don’t want coffee that’s too strong because that would give it a bitter taste, but also not one that is too weak because then its flavor won’t be distinct enough. The same can be said about the brewing time,’ explains Gaku and adds: ‘A lot of precision also goes into weighing the coffee. We have to use the exact amount needed – one gram too much or too little and the flavor is lost.’
Is Specialty Coffee Better Than “Regular” Coffee?
‘Specialty coffee doesn’t mean that it’s better than any other coffee types. It’s not for everyone – some people even dislike its acidic, slightly sour taste,’ says Gaku. ‘Coffee can be done in different ways and each country has its strong coffee culture already. Don’t forget that specialty coffee is still a very new thing.’ In fact, the scoring system that determines which beans earn the label “specialty” was introduced just a few decades ago. Although the term “specialty coffee” was first used in the 70s, the “Third Wave of Coffee”, as the rise in popularity of specialty coffee is called, only began in the 1990s in America. Today, countries like Australia, New Zealand, or the UK belong to leading specialty coffee cultures.
Other countries, though, have different preferences. ‘Some people like Italian-style coffee characterized by a particularly dark roast. Others prefer the American style, which is a matter of the water-coffee ratio. If you like to drink instant coffee, that’s also completely fine,’ says Gaku. ‘Yes, even instant coffee can be of good quality, depending on the beans.’ He then explains that instant coffee is made by brewing huge amounts of coffee which is then left to dry. The dried-up pieces are subsequently collected, packed, and sold.
‘There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these methods. They can all be high or low in quality, depending on the coffee beans. And if you enjoy a certain style, why stop? Specialty coffee is just a matter of taste and a way to add variety to the already established coffee cultures we have.’
Is Coffee-Making Art, Science, or a Spiritual Ritual?
Admittedly, the precise methods baristas use to prepare specialty coffee does come close to science – but rather than scientifically driven, the exactitude of specialty coffee-making is a culturally determined ideal. Since Gaku comes from Japan, he says he inherited Japanese enthusiasm for precision. ‘In Japan, we like things to be exact, well-crafted, and aesthetically pleasing.’ The latter explains why latte art is so popular in Japan: it creates no extra cost, but makes customers smile!
In a sense, coffee-making has become a cultural ritual similar to traditional tea ceremonies. ‘At home, I enjoy making coffee using a filter; it provides a sense of comfort when life gets stressful. I don’t mind that it takes time – the more time I spend making it, the longer does my Zen moment last. When I make my coffee, I don’t think about anything else but the task itself.’
Speaking of Zen and spirituality, Gaku has recently joined a workshop called “The Mindful Coffee Experience”, a coffee tasting with a twist – all participants were blindfolded. ‘At first, I was skeptical, but I must admit that it did make a difference. You definitely focus more on the flavors when your sense of sight is eliminated. It’s just you and the coffee.’
Can Local Specialty Cafes Survive?
Whether local coffee shops can keep on brewing despite large chain stores taking over is a contested debate. Since Gaku used to work both for Starbucks, the largest coffee-house chain in the world in terms of revenue, and for super local, tiny cafes like “The Little One”, he has seen both worlds.
‘I think that chains like Starbucks should not be demonized. The good thing about these is that they guarantee a certain standard – no matter where you are in the world, you will always get the same cappuccino.’ Gaku also argues that coffee franchises are evolving and fighting against cultural homogenization that comes with global trade. ‘In Japan, Starbucks cafes are designed according to their respective areas. This is how they integrate themselves into the community and show respect to local culture.’
Finally, Gaku points out that it is the individual countries and customers that have the final say. ‘Italy, for example, said no to Starbucks. They don’t need it – they prefer their local coffee shops. So the question is not whether big chains are destroying smaller cafes, but rather whether there is enough demand for smaller establishments. As long as people keep coming to their local coffee shops, cafes like Auer & Co. and Starbucks can exist side by side just fine.’
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