What does it mean when the California coffee scene goes to Japan?

Kobe – In Northern California’s Bay Area, where craft coffee is a coveted accessory, to hold a New Orleans cold brew from Blue Bottle compares to holding a venti cappuccino from Starbucks in the early 2000s. The average consumer of Oakland-based Blue Bottle is the evolved caffeine-dependent, though: that sky-coloured logo on the cup implies the drinker can dish out the origins and history of cascara, and can easily sniff out whether or not a roast is from Ethiopia as opposed to, say, Sumatra.

Within the past three years, Tokyo-based Schemata Architects has introduced Blue Bottle into 10 Japanese locations. Outside the United States, the cafes in Tokyo, Kyoto and now, Kobe, constitute the brand’s only international presence. And the cult status it has achieved since opening 15 years ago has not gone unnoticed: last year, corporate giant Nestlé took a 68 per cent stake in the coffee company, which resulted in it being valued at over 700 million US dollars.

The Kobe café works well into the aesthetic narrative of its Californian counterparts. White flooring, white walls, brass fixtures and an exposed ceiling: it would not look awry in San Francisco’s Mission or Dogpatch neighbourhoods, where places like Tartine Manufactory and Sightglass Coffee have favoured complementary design elements. Deeper into the city, the Sansome and Fillmore locations are different but similar representations of the brand – one might say they’re Kobe’s fraternal twins.

And in Kobe, the new Blue Bottle is situated in an old settlement that was built for foreigners in 1868. Although it’s not a Western-style building, Schemata designed it to look as such. And, like the Hayes Valley kiosk in San Francisco, the Kobe café is in the middle of a variety of high-fashion retail stores. Anchored by the historic Daimaru department store, passers-by are invited in by means of wide windows and a pristine white façade. Inside, the open floor plan provides an air of inclusivity, of community.

 The spatial construction of a focal point on the equipment allows the emphasis be where it should be: on the coffee


Blue Bottle, since its conception, has prided itself on discerning taste and quality, with a capitalisation on its story ­– on performance. The mechanical elegance of the coffee apparatus itself provides an experience mass purveyors cannot provide, on American soil or abroad. With Blue Bottle’s newer locations in Japan, the island where the customer can watch their barista aeropress, siphon and chemex to their heart’s content is still the prioritised spatial element. The construction of this focal point allows the emphasis be where it should be: on the coffee.

But as the brand swiftly globalises under Nestlé, is it bound for the path of Starbucks, exporting Westernised luxury ideals in the convenient form of a biodegradable takeaway cup and Instagrammable minimalism? That remains to be seen. After all, James Freeman, Blue Bottle’s CEO, started the company to stray from the commercial coffee enterprise. Given the presence of its Swiss stakeholder, the design of the cafés will inevitably play a large part in keeping the narrative of the Golden State's reigning roaster true.


Location 1 Maemachi Chuo-ku, Kobe 650-0039

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