Millennial Time Machine.
Perched on my barstool, I'm packed in with a group of fellow coffee pilgrims.
A curious orange box in front of me gently grinds a small batch of coffee beans roasted just moments ago. Patrons eagerly watch as three baristas execute flawlessly on a coffee making ritual precisely as it has been done since Sekiguchi Ichiro opened this sentimental kissaten coffee house in 1948.
We're tucked away in the heart of Ginza at Cafe de L'Ambre, a hidden gem that only locals and coffee vagabonds know about. You'd stroll right past it if not for the striking orange sign on the steps. Stepping inside, you're greeted with a warm welcome and a much-needed escape from Tokyo's never-ending hustle and bustle.
I'm in town for work, but my local buddies know I'm all about discovering quirky coffee haunts. They suggested Cafe de l'Ambre, renowned among coffee aficionados for its enigmatic founder and its aged coffee beans – a practice that defies the conventional wisdom of today's specialty coffee world.
Aged green coffee beans. Credit: Sila Blume
I'll have the 29-year-old coffee, please.
"Ever tried aged coffee before?" inquires Tanaka-San, my attentive barista.
Nope. I've always heard that green coffee beans lose their mojo over time and that freshness is king.
After quizzing me about my coffee preferences, Tanaka-San ponders my answers, then grabs a small mason jar. "Okay! Here's my recommendation." He twists off the lid, and the aroma of roasted coffee wafts my way.
"These Bourbon varietal beans come from Brazil's Carmo Shimosaka plantation. They're from the 1993 harvest, aged for 29 years, and we roasted this batch just this morning."
A seasoned barista at the cafe, Tanaka-San is a dedicated disciple of Sekiguchi-San, who taught him everything about aged coffee and exceptional customer service.
I can't resist asking, "Why age the beans?"
"Ah, that's a long story," he says. In 1948, fresh green coffee beans were scarce in Japan. Sekiguchi-San managed to find some coveted Sumatra Mandheling beans, but they were already a decade old.
Japan faced serious supply shortages after the war, so finding fresh beans would have been nearly impossible. The Sumatra beans were originally bound for Germany, but war logistics left them stranded in a Japanese warehouse.
Sekiguchi-San roasting his aged beans at Cafe de L'Ambre. Credit: TimeOut
Skeptical yet intrigued, Sekiguchi-San roasted a sample and was blown away by the depth and complexity of the flavor. He bought the entire lot of Sumatra beans, and over the years, continued experimenting with other aged beans. Today, Cafe de l'Ambre has a treasure trove of unique aged coffees to share with adventurous patrons.
Tanaka-San starts his meticulous coffee-making ritual. He prefers a tiny demitasse cup, specially designed to amplify the flavors of the dense coffee elixir. I ask for the full pour, which is just 100 milliliters (3.3 ounces), and he nods approvingly.
Coffee is prepared here using only one method: the nel drip pour over. Tanaka-San carefully weighs 18 grams of aged Sumatra beans, grinds them coarsely, and places them in a fine cotton filter resembling a sock. Noticing my curiosity, he explains, "Nel drip extracts the flavors and oils of the coffee the best."
He pours a gentle stream of near-boiling water to wet the coffee grounds. Unlike most pour-overs, Tanaka-San keeps the pot stationary, moving the nel drip around instead. It's the way it's always been done.
Credit: Tokyo Coffee
Unrushed and methodical, Tanaka-San spends five full minutes extracting 3.3 ounces of the dark elixir into a copper bowl. At the precise moment, he dries a pre-warmed porcelain cup and pours the concentrated coffee into it, presenting it to me like a precious gift.
I lift the cup, taking in the enticing aroma. It's a darker roast than I expected, with hints of cocoa and dark toast. But there's also a spicy cereal note that's new to me – intriguing.
Tanaka-San watches quietly as I explore his handiwork.
The scent brings back memories of childhood mornings, waking up to the smell of my dad's percolator brewing his favorite roast. Our taste and smell experiences with coffee often transport us back to the flavors and aromas of our childhood.
I take my first sip, savoring the taste – a harmony of sweetness, bitter chocolate, a touch of smoke, and an unmistakable malty cereal note.
So this is what an aged coffee tastes like.
A flavor awakening.
Specialty coffee enthusiasts might scoff at the idea of aged coffee, but when vintage beans receive the utmost care, are roasted just right, and prepared with precision, the result is a delightful rarity.
Sekiguchi-San embraced the world of aged coffee with an open mind, questioning the widely-held belief that green coffee beans must be fresh to be flavorful. That willingness to explore opened the door to a whole new sensory experience.
Experiencing this tiny cafe tucked away in Ginza is something of a meditative experience, if you surrender to the moment and simply enjoy the sensory journey.
Isn't that what we all seek when we travel? To immerse ourselves in the moment, to see things with fresh eyes, suspending judgment long enough to be open to the wisdom of others who have lived a life vastly different from our own.