Release Date: Jan 22, 2016
Vaughan sits down with Hengtee Lim – the man who delivers coffee news in Tokyo to the world via Sprudge.com – and asks him about his lifestyle, his short stories and his take on coffee in Japan…
VAUGHAN: Hengtee, every coffee lover knows Sprudge, and we’ve all probably read something you’ve written about coffee (I’m a big fan!), but we’d love to find out a little bit more about you! So, self-introduction time! How did you get involved in coffee – and walk us through a typical day.
HENGTEE: I got involved in coffee when I first moved to Tokyo. I went to cafes every weekend and was at first drawn to the design aspect – there’s a lot of character there if you take the time to look. But the more places I went to the more I met coffee lovers out to share their passion. I felt their stories were worth sharing, and I also wanted to learn more about coffee myself. It was a ‘two birds one stone’ kind of deal.
My typical day starts early. I’ll listen to a podcast (recently hooked on You Are Not So Smart) while I go through the morning ritual of prepping an Aeropress. Then I’ll take a little time to catch up on emails and correspondence. If I have an interview or meeting, I’ll head out for that, otherwise I’ll try and write for an hour – might be a Sprudge article, might be a short story – I just want to keep those muscles loose. Usually around lunch time I’ll head out somewhere, maybe a kissaten (dig the retro vibe, you know?), and go for a walk to think.
In the evening, I’ll read, write, or go to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
V: I’ve never listened to a podcast before. I have no idea how to listen to them. You might have to give me some pointers next time. Sounds like “you are not so smart” would be the perfect introduction for me.
So, what stands out about coffee and cafes in Japan that you think is different to back home in Australia or overseas?
H: To be honest, I can’t say with any real conviction. I grew up in Australia, but my relationship with specialty coffee started here in Tokyo (Thanks, Masa!). One thing I’ve noticed since learning the scene here, however – and it’s something other people from abroad have noticed, too – is that the Tokyo scene is really tight-knit because it’s still quite small and in this developing stage. Maybe it’s a proximity thing, too. Everyone knows everyone, everyone drinks everyone else’s coffee, and there’s no sense of competition or friction – just a harmony of different people singing the same coffee tune.
But maybe it’s like that everywhere. I don’t know.
V: Just a harmony of different people singing the same coffee tune..Yes!
Well, I guess you’ve come across a lot of nice stories when it comes to coffee in Japan. Can you tell me one or two episodes that you won’t forget?
H: At the SCAJ (Specialty Coffee Association of Japan) Conference in 2014, I watched the Cup Tasters Championship for the first time. I was surprised by the tension. I still remember it coming down to the last cup – had Terukiyo Tahara secured another perfect run, and thus the competition? He lifted his cup to see and erupted into a shout of victory; one that melted to tears. It really hit home for me then: there are some seriously passionate people in coffee.
I also remember visiting Blue Bottle a few days before the grand opening at Kiyosumi-Shirakawa. They had the curtains up at that point, but there was an audible hustle and bustle. Inside it was a fascinating sight: everyone was in blue shirts – some playing customers, and others brewing coffee after coffee after coffee. The coffees were tasted briefly, then judged, then placed at the end of the counter, a kind of elephant’s graveyard for abandoned hot coffees, espresso shots, cafe lattes, and iced drinks. I remember looking at that ever-growing mass of coffee cups and wondering, “Just how much coffee are these guys going to serve this weekend?”
Well, we know now, that it was a lot.
V: I remember reading somewhere that there’s a difference between seeing something and actually understanding something. And after reading your articles, I’ve always felt that you’ve got this very keen eye and rare ability to understand something at it’s very core. I think that really comes through in your writing.
What interests you or what are you looking for when deciding to write an article? Are you interested in something new? Something unique to Japan? Or is it mainly about the people and their stories?
H: Thanks, man. First and foremost, it’s nice to know that people enjoy the writing.
It might be that it’s new or old (and it’s often one of these two), or cultural, or the owner is interesting, but usually I don’t look for anything in particular. I simply search out people and places that interest me, and learn as much about them as I can. I find in this way, stories tend to tell themselves. And the vast majority are really interesting. My job is to take those stories, or snapshots of them, and convey them as best I can.
People are really at the heart of it, I think. What motivates someone to pursue a craft or a passion? What paths did they walk to get there? How does what they do express who they are? I find this the most interesting to write about.
V: You also mentioned that you write short stories. What are your short stories about and how can we read them? Any scenes of lovers chatting over coffee?
H: I write short stories under the name Snippets. When I started, they were all primarily snippets of conversation, so the name fit. It’s all just slice-of-life stuff, really – heartbreak, growing up, friendship, trying to make sense of the world, that kind of thing. You can find them on medium.com, here .
Coffee pops up in just one of my stories, where a girl buys a guy dark-roasted coffee, and he’s certain it heralds the end of their relationship. But despite himself, he enjoys it. Coffee can be all sorts of things at all sorts of times, and in this story it’s a catalyst for realization – he might be in love. You can read that here .
V: Thanks Hengtee – your short story just made me miss my stop on the Hibiya line. Absolutely loved it though – there’s a Murakami essence there, just the style I like.
So, what’s next for you in Tokyo? And is there a big dream? Or do you take each day as it comes?
H: There’s so much writing to do here in Tokyo, both coffee and otherwise. There are stories everywhere, and it would seem a shame to leave so many of those left untold, you know? For the time being, Tokyo absolutely feels right – I love the energy and creativity. And of course, the coffee scene.
The big dream is to somehow make writing a full-time gig. For now, it’s a day to day thing. Small steps. Honing the craft. I’m working with a few illustrators at the moment, experimenting – someday I want to release a small collection of short stories with accompanying illustrations by local artists and illustrators. Some sort of similar, coffee-inspired project is always bubbling around in my head, too.
V: Sounds exciting! I really look forward to seeing and reading future works!
For first time visitors to Japan, can you recommend a couple of coffee shops to head to?
H: About Life Coffee Brewers is a good starting point, because they’re right there in central Shibuya, they’re great people, and they offer coffee from three quality locations – Onibus, Switch, and Amameria.
Fuglen is another nice choice – the coffee is top-class, and Yoyogi Park is right across the road. I recommend getting a coffee and heading through the park to Meiji Shrine.
But if people are looking for more recommendations, feel free to get in touch on twitter! (@Hent03)
V: Finally, any Hengtee tips for our readers who are brewing coffee at home and want to make a better cup? Listening to a barista speak about making the perfect cup can be very informative but sometimes overwhelmingly scientific!
H: Firstly, play around and experiment! Everyone likes a different cup of coffee, so try a variety of coffees and brew methods. When I didn’t have money for a lot of coffee equipment, I tried different styles at cafes I visited. Eventually found I like the Aeropress.
It can also help to invest in a few basics if you’re brewing at home – a grinder, a scale, and a thermometer. These help keep preparations consistent, and over time you can tinker with the variables – amount of coffee, amount of water, temperature – until you find a sweet spot.
When talking to baristas, I avoid big questions like, “How do I make a good cup of coffee?” There are too many answers. Lots of variables. I prefer to brew at home, experiment, and then ask specific questions for feedback, e.g. “I’m brewing with the V60 but it’s bitter. Here’s how I’m brewing it, can you offer any advice?” This gives the barista a concrete framework to work within, and they can offer you tips more specific to your situation.
You can connect with Hengtee Lim here…
Photos taken at LIGHT UP COFFEE
Photography by Nik van der Giesen