The fine art of a perfect cup of coffee

The fine art of a perfect cup of coffee

Does this tiny Tokyo café serve the world's best brew? Mind your manners if you want to find out
Irukaya Coffee Shop
Elegance personified -- Hiroshi Kiyota presides over what might just be the best café in Tokyo.

The Irukaya coffee shop has a rigid code of conduct and you only get one shot.

I blew mine just by dialing the number.

Owner Hiroshi Kiyota keeps a blog on which he describes the kinds of people that will never set foot inside his reservation-only shop.

I’d read the website and studied the rules: no photos, even of the facade; no groups larger than two; order at least one drink per hour; no talking to Kiyota while he’s making coffee; no smoking; no mobile phones.

I could go on. The website does.

But I’d forgotten one: Don’t call outside business hours. It was 1:40 p.m. Irukaya wouldn’t open for another 20 minutes.

“Please hang up and read the rules more carefully,” said Kiyota, but his tone suggested I needn’t bother.

Take two. A month later, a different phone, 2:15 p.m. ... no answer. I tried several more times with no success, then gave up.

About 15 minutes later, my phone rang. “This is Irukaya. Would you like to come today?”

I grabbed a friend and went straight there.

Mission: possible

Irukaya Coffee ShopKiyota isn't quite the tyrant his website implies.

From the outside, you’d never guess it was a coffee shop. But you’d sure wonder what it was.

There are no windows, there’s no sign, just a wooden door and an all-white facade that seem out of place on a greige suburban thoroughfare.

I learned later that the look was modeled on Scotland’s Glen Elgin whisky distillery.

It took courage to open the door. I’d heard Kiyota evicts anyone who breaks etiquette. But I’d also heard the coffee was exceptional, perhaps Tokyo's best, so I pushed on.

The room was spare and white with an elmwood counter down the middle and four seats.

Kiyota turned out to be nothing like the tyrant I was expecting. He looked gentle, spoke kindly and was dressed casually in a vintage tracksuit top.

He handed me an unusually detailed menu. Each page described one coffee.

I read about the origin and weight of the beans, the flavor profile, the inspiration of the drink and much more.

He offered three kinds of demitasse hot coffee, which he likened to styles of Scotch whisky.

Ame-no-oto is like a Highland malt, Yubiksaki is more of an Islay and Mori-no-shizuku is like a Speyside,” he said.

I warmed to him. Who wouldn’t?

Precise measures

Irukaya Coffee ShopStarbucks it ain't.

At the end of the counter was a small workstation lit by an old desk lamp.

There were scales, thermometers, measuring beakers and mason jars of coffee beans. It looked like a makeshift caffeine laboratory.

I ordered a Yubisaki blend (¥1,000, US$11), and he plucked beans from the jars, weighed them, adjusted the ratio.

He ground the blend and packed it into a nel drip -- a handheld flannel filter.

He took hot water from a stove and trickled it over the filter. The grounds swelled up like a chocolate muffin and coffee began seeping through the cloth and into a beaker below.

After around 10 minutes, Kiyota poured the coffee into a pan and warmed it on the stove.

Finally, he poured the brew into two cups, alternating so each shared the top, middle and tail of the coffee.

He tasted one cup, then served me the other. “Yubisaki,” he said. “Drink it as you would a whisky. It should take around 20 minutes.”

As promised, it was deep and powerful with a complex smokiness that Islay whisky drinkers will recognize.

I struggled with the timing. I worked out I was allowed a milliliter every 90 seconds. I had only a splash left when my friend whispered, “You’ve got another 10 minutes ’til you’re allowed to finish that.”

Beyond coffee

Irukaya Coffee ShopArtistry in action.

On paper, the rules look forbidding, but the longer you spend in Irukaya, the more they make sense.

It's not a place you go for a caffeine fix. It's a sanctuary that happens to serve java.

Most of the rules are in place to keep things tranquil.

Kiyota says the two-person group limit is a necessity: "It takes a long time to make the coffee. I'd feel sorry for a third person having to wait 30 minutes for their drink."

Kiyota also has an enviable whisky collection. I counted just over 50 bottles, most of them rare.

There can’t be many coffee shops that serve Glen Deveron, Fettercairn or Johnnie Walker King George V.

(Lest the impressive whisky shelf lead you to mistake this for a whisky bar, the rules state that you can’t order a malt unless you order a coffee too.)

On my second visit to Irukaya, I tried an ice coffee with a splash of Laphroaig (¥1,400).

Kiyota served it in a champagne flute, topped with a layer of cream. It was a masterpiece.

Irukaya Coffee ShopJust don't call it joe.

Whisky can be prickly in coffee, but his was integrated, complex and rolling with flavor.

I discovered why when I tried the coffee without the Laphroaig. It still tasted of whisky.

Kiyota told me he cold brews his coffee, then ages it for up to 10 days, “until it tastes like Glenmorangie.”

It's an extraordinary flavor to tease from roasted seeds but he does it and you should try it. If he lets you.

Getting there: Irukaya, 5-7-39 Inokashira, Mitaka-shi, +81 (0) 90 3042 4145; open 2 p.m.-midnight, closed Wednesday;

More on CNN: Japan’s most incredible cup of coffee

Nicholas Coldicott is a contributing editor at Whisky Magazine Japan.

Read more about Nicholas Coldicott