The next #kurasucoffee roaster is LiLo Coffee Roasters in Shinsaibashi, Osaka.
Shinsaibashi has many different sides to its character, each with its own style and has been attracting many different people and evolving continuously over the years.
Osaka itself is a very lively place, but “America-mura” (“American Village”) - where LiLo Coffee Roasters is located- is especially known for its long-thriving youth culture. Back in 1970s, this area started to sell secondhand clothes and miscellaneous goods imported from the U.S.A. and has grown into an area of art, pop culture popular with young trendsetters.
LiLo Coffee Roasters opened its door three years ago on August 8th, 2014- their story starting at one beauty salon run by the owner of the roaster, Hotta-san.
Hotta-san, a professional hairstylist for more than a decade, is a big coffee enthusiast. He had built a bar counter at his salon to brew coffee for his customers, and the beans were from this favourite roaster; however, he was secretly dreaming of brewing a house roast someday. One day, Hotta-san learned from the building's owner that infamous ground floor would once again be vacant. The space had seen many different shops start up there but none of them lasted. The owner wanted to change that pattern and have something long lasting that could grow and develop with the local area.
Having his salon open for more than ten years, Hotta-san had become very attached to the America-mura area. He wanted to give back to it by doing something to make the area even more attractive. This opportunity, combined with his long desire to create his own house roast, made Hotta-san think of Nakamura-san, his highschool friend and fellow coffee lover to become the head roaster at LiLo Coffee Roasters. Inspired, Hotta-san felt that together they would be able to achieve something great, so told the owner he would take it.
Hotta-san started by purchasing a 1kg roaster as in-house roasting had always been his dream. Although Nakamura-san had some experience with hand roasting, this was his first time doing the entire process professionally- they had to open the roaster within three months, and in Nakamura-san's words “ the whole process was just chaotic.” The location and its eye-catching appearance attracted many visitors from the moment they opened, but despite Nakamura-san managing to serve 6 kinds of beans, none of them were well received, and one person from the coffee industry even said to Nakamura-san’s face that their coffee was trash.
Despite such harsh words, Nakamura-san refused to be beaten by it; the tenacious nature he had established throughout his previous careers- including one job as a bouncer - came to bear. Three years later, they had grown and now employed three baristas, had three times more customers, and that person from the coffee industry who once talked trash of their coffee had become a regular.
A good way to see LiLo Coffee Roasters’ journey, is how it is reflected in their annual slogans.
Their first year's slogan was ”Life is short. Surround yourself with good people and only drink good coffee.” It describes Nakamura-san’s fun and uplifting personality, but as previously mentioned, their first year was a tough one. Nakamura-san was in charge of the roaster alone, often working so long he would end up sleeping each night with the green beans in the same, tiny room going to bed, thinking he would have to give up if it doesn’t work out within six months. Gradually their sales increase and the amount he needed to roast started to increase, soon getting to the point where they needed to hire another barista to join the team.
The slogan for the second year was “Live in the moment.” Because we only live once, you should always do the best for what you want to do. This year was a year of growth for them, and they started to sell beans online to increase their sales.
The slogan for the third year was ”Life is colorful.” This year, Nakamura-san went to as many coffee events as he could in order to establish connections and brush up his skills. They rented the 9th floor and opened LiLoCoffeeLab to hold workshops and cupping events. By this time, their team had grown even more, enabling Nakamura-san to put someone else in charge of the shop so he could focus on expanding the business.
There are two main factors that helped Nakamura-san improve and develop his roasting skills- the demands for such enormous amounts of roast - at its peak up to 60 batches a day, and the feedback he received listening to LiLo Coffee's customers.
LiLo Coffee Roasters purchase beans from SPECIALTY COFFEE WATARU, a reliable importer that allows Nakamura-san to focus solely on roasting and nothing else.
Nakamura-san always looks for one thing in beans, which is a strong first impression. It was this that led Nakamura-san to the way of specialty coffee 6 years earlier when he first tried specialty coffee, a roast by Unir served at a local cafe. “It was nothing like the coffee I used to know”, Nakamura-san recalled fondly.
LiLo Coffee Roaster’s standard is based on Nakamura-san’s such experience- beans that produce “clean” cup are valued in the specialty coffee world, but LiLo Coffee Roasters values the uniqueness and initial surprise of the cup even more. As a result of only choosing uniquely different beans, they ended up stocking 19 kinds to accommodate all the kinds of flavour people visiting to look for.
A key part of roasting is expressing those characteristics of the beans. They use LUCKY COFFEE MACHINE CO.,LTD’s 8kg roaster to roast approximately 300-500 kg per month. “1t is the maximum amount I could roast with this machine, I’d love to try that!” Nakamura-san smiled.
Before becoming one himself, Nakamura-san's impression of roasters was “proud craftsperson who keeps their skills to themselves and doesn’t talk much.” Compared to baristas who have a popular and often idolised job, not many in Japan dream of becoming a roaster, mainly because they are not in the limelight. Nakamura-san is trying to change that impression with his happy, easy-going personality while still possessing the knowledge and skill of a true artisan. “Roasters play an essential role in producing coffee, yet they are not recognised as much enough as baristas- and I think we, roasters should express ourselves and get more recognition”, Nakamura-san says. He has been very open about his roasting process, showing the roastery to people and is keen on leading emerging roasters the way.
The first thing you will notice when you step into LiLo Coffee Roasters is how compact the whole space is, and just how close you are to where baristas are work. The stack of containers of various coffee beans almost touch the ceiling, colourful signs introduce recommendations of the day and the flavour wheel, and there is wide range of their official merchandise: the shop is full of conversation starters.
You may worry how you could choose just one from their 19 different kinds of coffee, but that is where their well-trained baristas come in. Every shift, they pick their favourite for that day and share it with the team on Google Calendar. The season, the weather and the temperature are taken into consideration when making their selection- for example, on a cold winter's day they may pick something thick a sweet yet a light roast would likely be picked on a summer’s day. Along with their personal recommendation, baristas suggest 2 to 3 other coffees to the customers based on their preference and personality and explore the options together.
When they explain the characteristics of the beans, they use their special little cards- on one side, a colourful illustration of the food that represents the flavours of the beans is printed along with the name and the origin of the coffee, and on the other side it has the flavour note and the recommended brewing equipment. These cards give a visual aid for the customers to make it a lot easier for them to understand the options and informs their choice-making process.
Once the coffee is picked, they need to choose a brewing method. A barista explains the characteristics of each method including the difference between paper and stainless filters, french press or even cold brew to realise the best flavour the customer is looking for.
This thorough customer service is only possible because they keep their team small with experienced baristas and they are all well-communicated and informed. Nakamura-san told us that he wishes to hire more people but that is difficult given the nature of the service they provide.
Another remarkable feature of LiLo Coffee Roasters is their wide range of official goods. Their T-shirts, mugs, fans, stainless mugs and many more are all designed by their exclusive designer, Mr. Yoshi Nakatani. Hotta-san is runs the business, Nakamura-san is in charge of the roasting, and Nakatani-san takes care of their designs- this clear and organized system is what makes LiLo Coffee Roasters strong.
While we were interviewing Nakamura-san, the phone rang. It was a call from the hair salon upstairs ordering coffee. These calls helped the roaster a lot when they were starting out, Nakamura-san said. The salon customers enjoyed their coffee and recommended it to other people and that helped the business grow. Hotta-san’s dream of serving fresh and good coffee at his salon not only came true, but it's going better than he ever dreamt.
Osaka and the Coffee Culture
It is actually difficult to answer the question, “what coffee culture is like in Osaka?”
The traditional Kissaten culture is still deep-rooted and has its own way, but at the same time, people in Osaka love new and unique things. As a result, specialty coffee triggered two extreme reactions- people who liked it enthusiastically welcomed it, but the others rejected it completely.
Nakamura-san also told us that most of the consumers in Osaka are very picky when it comes to spending money. It is not just that people are hunting for low prices- in Osaka, the city of merchants, it's easy to find a good bargain. What people here care about is to get what they paid for, and more. Some of the regulars would usually drink 100 yen coffee as they are just looking for a quick caffeine kick, so when they pay 550 yen for a cup of coffee, they are paying not only to get good coffee but to enjoy the conversation with baristas and other customers, and everything else that makes the whole experience enjoyable. There are many overpriced and oversold things with added values such as “cool” atmosphere and brands, and many people would pay an overinflated price for that- however, in Osaka, that business model will not survive.
Another obstacle that Nakamura-san pointed out is that Osaka’s coffee community is lacking a leader. Unlike Fukuoka where the coffee community is close-knit and well connected, in Osaka it has yet to network and collaborate to try and grow the industry. Nakamura-san believes that is because many shop owners in Osaka would rather be independent and unique, but despite this he feels there should be a way for Osaka to establish its own, flexible and unique community.
The other day, at an event at MUJI in Shinsaibashi, they faced the fact that they don't yet have enough brand recognition in Osaka yet. However, they see this as a potential for growth and are now planning to be known through more workshops and events. They have also started to sell stainless filters for Aeropress- the mesh size is roughly half way between two of the existing stainless filters on the market, meaning their design is perfect for making a stable brew. Even though Aeropress has its own global championships and there is even a Japanese champion, the brand is not known in Japan well enough, so it makes sense that this hidden potential resonates with LiLo Coffee Roasters.
“Osaka’s strength is the warmth of local people and their fun-loving nature. There are many things Osaka can do to be better”, Nakamura-san says. The slogan for the fourth year is “This is Osaka”- they will continuously look for the hidden gems in this beautifully chaotic city to make its coffee culture stronger and more appealing.