One of the best cups of coffee I’ve ever had was at Café de l’Ambre in Tokyo. This delightful coffeeshop opened in 1948 and the decor hasn’t changed since. Located in the luxe futurescape of Tokyo’s Ginza neighborhood, the dim lighting, mid-century red booths, and dark wood make you feel like you’re about to meet Don Draper for a quick meeting. Laura and I have been to coffeeshops all over the world but this one is absolutely singular– custom lamps, custom ashtrays (with burning cigarettes still in them), custom gooseneck pourers designed by Ichiro Sekiguchi, the café’s owner. The coffee grinder- another design by Mr. Sekiguchi- isn’t a state-of-the-art chrome art piece. It’s a behemoth of a post-war relic and has been in operation since the café’s first day in 1948. The small refrigerator doesn’t even run on electricity. It’s literally an icebox, chilling milk in the middle of futuristic Tokyo.
Sekiguchi-san opened the shop in 1948 soon after World War II and roasted coffee there three times a day until his death in 2018. Even in his 104th and final year, he’d hop on the back of his nephew’s motorcycle to be whisked to the café in the early morning light to start the day’s roasting.
When Laura and I visited his shop in 2016, Sekiguchi-san was sitting outside the roasting machine smoking his pipe at the youthful age of 102. He’d been showing up to the shop continuously for 68 years to roast, perfectly execute a pourover or two, and enjoy a cup of coffee that only he could make. I ordered a cup of Ethiopian beans dating back to the 70’s. Yes, the beans were from the 1970’s. They age the unroasted beans in a controlled environment for decades in order to balance their acidity and round out their flavor. The coffee came served in a small porcelain cup, also Sekiguchi-san’s design.
Of course the coffee was damn good. It was all the things I love about coffee elevated to impossible heights– but everything about it was wrong according to our chic Seattle standards. Here in Seattle, fancy coffeeshops pride themselves on how quickly the beans go from harvest, to drying, to roasting, to the cup of coffee in your hands. Beans barely have a shelf life of 30 seconds in this town, according to most baristas– let alone fifty years. Sekiguchi-san roasts his beans dark. Like, super dark — darker than some of my apocalyptic coronavirus stress thoughts. But dark roasts are all wrong wrong wrong. Your local coffee snob will tell you that the better the bean, the lighter you want to roast it in order to fully taste the characteristics of the bean itself. As if these coffee faux-pas weren’t enough, when they brew your cup at Café de l’Ambre, clouds of steam billow out of the gooseneck pourer. They use boiling water! Any of my chemex home-brewers reading this are probably cringing at the thought.
If you want to test how wrong this is, sometime in future-post-Coronaland, go to the fanciest coffee shop you can find and tell them you want the oldest coffee they have, roasted dark as dark can be, brewed with hard boiling water over what looks like an old sock and watch their horrified expression.
Why did they make their coffee like this? Because Sekiguchi-san has been showing up for 68 years, refining his systems, his brew, and this is how he’s figured out coffee tastes best. The coffee in my cup at Café de l’Ambre was ambrosia. Now, I’m not telling you to try to reach this level of excellence during this quarantine. I’m just asking you to show up to whatever you love right now. It can be as simple as making your morning coffee a little more mindfully or refining how much white vs wheat flour you like in your homemade bread recipe. Maybe it means not wearing just pajamas for the 5th straight day or stopping your online yoga class halfway through because meh, you’re just done.
Maybe it’s to your kids, your partner, or your own perfect soul — but show up. The individual, boring days of showing up eventually become 104 years of a life well lived.
Side note: our elders are the ones who know how to roast the coffee. They’re the ones who know the dying language that would die with them. They’re the only ones who have the recipe for the lasagna you like, written by your great grandmother on a yellow notecard with tomato splatters on it. What they have isn’t on the internet. They have wisdom we can’t even fathom. So please stay home. The world needs its Sekiguchi-sans.