Release Date: Jul 15, 2016
Good Coffee: Michael and Hibiki, Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. When and how did you get involved in coffee? And, tell us about the road leading up to where you are now.
MICHAEL PHILLIPS: I worked for a company called Intelligentsia and was based in Chicago. I started out working in the production department thinking I wanted to be a coffee roaster. During this time however, I participated in the internal company barista competition and realized that I had more of a passion to work in a cafe so I transitioned there as I began competing. I worked my way up from dishwasher to barista to trainer to director of training over the years as I practiced my craft and competed in the national competitions. In 2009 I finally won the US national event and was able to represent my country in the WBC, taking 3rd place overall. The next year I managed to win with the support of all of the great people I worked with.
HIBIKI FUJIOKA: I started in coffee about 10 years ago. At that time, the word “Barista” wasn’t really known. My dream was always to become a sculptor. I started working part-time at a café that had the latest espresso machine. However, no one actually knew how to operate it properly there. I felt it was such a waste. During my training, I watched a certain barista make a cappuccino and I was so impressed. So I started using the machine whenever I had time and basically taught myself. I had a new goal; to live making espressos behind an Italian bar! I have experienced the culture of Buddha statues, temples, and Japanese green tea – that all have a long history and I kind of felt that I wanted to make coffee culture to be somewhat like them. Coffee culture is gradually expanding, however the coffee culture environment is not yet settled in everyday life in Japan. I thought Blue Bottle Coffee is the one that can make big movements for coffee culture in Japan. In addition, James Freeman came to my former cafe and I served coffee to him and was glad that he remembered me. That’s how I started out at Blue Bottle.
GC: What does a typical day usually look like for you both at Blue Bottle?
MP: My days are anything but consistent. I am traveling over 200 days a year to work with our teams in different markets. One day might be filled with meetings with my teams in New York, the Bay area of Oakland and Tokyo while the next is spent testing new equipment in our LA lab and the day after that spent working on an update to our training curriculum and doing a tasting with James Freeman the founder. I love how much variety is in my work, it always keeps things new and exciting.
HF: I wake up and greet my cats. I drink plain hot water and eat a light breakfast and commute to Blue Bottle in Kiyosumi Shirakawa. During my commute, I read books, research different things, and think about new ideas. Recently, I’ve been thinking about creating new drinks using Japanese traditional fruits. After arriving at the cafe, I usually have a cappuccino or drip coffee. It’s not for quality control… I just want to enjoy coffee in the morning. After coffee, I start thinking about training plans, actually train baristas, receive updates, and summarize updates to my documents.
GC: Tell us about the culture at Blue Bottle.
MP: The culture at Blue Bottle is the healthiest of my entire professional career, I love it. There is a focus and commitment on people development that I have never seen before. I work in training and my department falls under People Operations so I get to see first hand how much hard and progressive work we are doing to develop internal training and engagement tracks for all of our teams, it is truly inspirational.
HF: Yes, it’s a good learning environment. I believe I have grown more in the coffee field as well as having grown so much as a human being. Blue Bottle Coffee offers positions within the company among the different departments. Like Michael said, baristas have the chance to step up to a variety of positions. It’s a very unique environment.
GC: Can you share something about Blue Bottle that may surprise us?
MP: I don’t know that most people realize how committed Blue Bottle is to sustainability. In terms of the coffees we buy to the packaging we use to the benefits we provide our team there is a strong internal dialog around what it means to operate as a sustainable company. It is so easy to focus on the quality of the coffee and the hospitality that we forget to talk about sustainability as much.
HF: From a barista’s perspective, something you may not know is that we change the temperature of the milk based on the shape and size of cups. Macchiato and Gibraltar are small drinks, and customers will drink them up quickly. We make the time we hand it to customer to be the best time for drinking it. Hence, the temperature will be lower to taste the sweetness of the milk. A cafe latte is with much more milk and customers will take more time to drink them. Hence, the milk temperature will be slightly higher than that for Macchiato and Gibraltar. When milk reaches about 60℃, the sweetness of milk will start to decrease. Many of our customers feel our milk drink’s temperature is lower, however, this milk temperature is making your cappuccino or latte sweeter (without sugar of course!). We also change the milk foam. Gibraltar glass has a sharp faucet and has height and we make slightly thinner milk form in this case. If we make it with thick foam on Gibraltar, milk form will feel heavy. The same goes for the to-go cup. During the training, we scale the weight of foam, temperature, etc. to make sure all the baristas can offer the same quality to our customers. We will continue to try to provide better suggestions of drinks not only about blend and single origin, but also based on each customer that orders.
GC: Besides the taste of coffee, what’s so fascinating about it for you both?
MP: I love the precision and the ritual of a handmade product. We are taking something that is so challenging to do perfectly and trying to find ways to do it faster and over a larger group of people than ever before. This takes great training, great hiring, well design stores and amazing equipment. There are so many important details that need to be attended to in order for us to reach our goal! The challenge of all of that is very exciting.
HF: Deliciousness, Hospitality, and Sustainability are the three important words at Blue Bottle Coffee. Last year I had chance to go to the U.S. headquarter and I was impressed with the kindness all the staff I met. As Michael mentioned before, Blue Bottle Coffee is engaged with environmental friendly activities. I’ve always seen a lot of waste at other shops I’ve worked at, but I have been impressed with Blue Bottle’s sustainability activities – for example, our to-go cups and lids are compostable. I believe BBC values both new trends as well as the traditions of coffee culture and hence can offer customers a variety of ways to enjoy the culture.
GC: What are some of the latest trends that you’re seeing that we’ll see more of in specialty coffee shops in the future?
MP: A strong amount of attention is being paid to the process of cold brewing coffee. This is in fact a very different and new process that has the potential to create it’s own genre of drinks. We have had our NOLA offering for a while and as of late have been refining our straight black cold brew process and Oji coffee as well. I think many cafes are starting to pay more attention here.
HF: Yes, as Michael said, cold brew will be great for the coming hot season in Japan. Cold brew coffee served through a beer server system has been introduced in U.S. for quite sometime… we might see the same system in Japan.
GC: There are a lot of baristas (and young roasters too!) in Japan who are really eager to develop their craft. What advice do you give to them?
MP: Question everything. There are a lot of people in the coffee industry who claim to have the single right answer as to how to do things and historically they keep being proved wrong. The true path of learning never stops and continuing to question what we assume to be right is a crucial part of that process.
HF: As baristas work, they will start to have habits. I try to get them thinking about theory with meaning and tell them not to do anything useless. A great craftsman’s movements are sophisticated and have no useless movements. Sometimes I give feedback on very small details such as how to fold the duster and where to place it. I also advise them to have a definitive image of the finished product and have confidence in producing it. If a barista does not have that clear image of what a delicious coffee is, he/she can never produce it. You can’t make coffee blindly; I have the baristas I’m training figure out why and how exactly what leads to the final product that is in their head. Until they figure this out, my job training them is not finished.
GC: And a follow up to the previous question, what makes “a good barista”? When you watch a coffee being made, what type of things are you watching?
MP: Going on from what Hibiki-san was just saying, a good barista sees everything, pays attention to the details and bases their actions off of that information. You have to watch everything you are doing with your coffee, the way your guests are moving about the space and also all of the nuts and bolts of the cafe. There is a lot to pay attention to and those who see the most typically do the best.
HF: Speed, consistency, quality are very important – but cleanness comes first. The coffee counter is the stage for baristas and an untidy bar is out of the question. We use excellent coffee beans and it is very natural that we can brew delicious coffee. I believe individuality is also important. Blue Bottle Coffee values consistency and some baristas feel it is hard to show their individuality. I believe individuality can be born beyond sophisticated techniques. Individuality is not superficial. It is very complicated… just like the flavor of coffee.
GC: Is there a gap between the way coffee is spoken about amongst professionals compared to with the customer? How do you educate customers in regards to specialty coffee and help bridge that gap?
MP: Of course, every industry has it’s own terminology that is required for them to be able to communicate clearly, especially across a large organization like Blue Bottle. While there are some things we invest in teaching our guests, I think part of great service is that they do not need to know our words in order to have a great experience, it is our responsibility to take care of that for them. At Blue Bottle we strive to meet our guests where they are at in terms of knowledge and help them learn more if they want to.
HF: For me, I try to identify what the customer wants to know. I do have an idea and way to enjoy specialty coffee. However, I try to figure out what kind of coffee they drink, what situation they choose to drink coffee, who they are, do they use sugar and milk, etc- through conversation, and I try to offer suggestions to each of our guests. I hope coffee becomes closer to the customer’s every day life first, and it would be nice if it gradually expanded. There are many more other coffee shops besides Blue Bottle Coffee and I hope all of the coffee served to customers makes them like coffee more.
GC: I’m sure in your time you’ve had a lot of nice memories with a lot of people in the coffee industry. Can you tell us an episode you’ll never forget?
MP: I will always remember my trip to a cooperative in Costa Rica in 2010 called Coopedota in the Dota Valley. I went down to train their baristas for the national competition that year. I was blown away by every aspect of it, the co-op is so well run and the range of coffees they had to work with was greater than I had ever seen. Most people have low expectations of how coffee is made in producing countries and the work done there dispelled that myth for me, it was amazing.
HF: Well, for me, there are many memories with customers. One customer kindly told me the coffee I served him was the first coffee he was really able to enjoy drinking. There is another customer from overseas who only comes once a year who we can’t communicate with through language, but somehow I always figure out what he wants. I really enjoy the interaction. Recently, some of my former customers became Blue Bottle baristas! Also, when the Aoyama cafe opened, there was a talk between James and Daibo. I was the lead barista at the Aoyama cafe. First, they ordered espresso but made a very interesting change. They ordered espresso with 30g because if they drink the most dense drink, they would know the essence of it. It was an unforgettable experience for me.
GC: And finally, can we get you to say a few things about each other?
MP: Hibiki comes off as quiet but very serious and stern the first time you meet him. But, he is incredibly committed to excellence and cares deeply for those he trains. It is rare to find a person with his level of professionalism in our out of coffee.
HF: Michael is a great barista as well as a great service man with the broadest view. There are many differences between the coffee culture in the U.S. and Japan, however, I am always surprised by his point of view and his way of thinking is very close to my image of “the ideal barista”. He has great sense of humor and makes everyone comfortable… even in those serious situations.
GC: Thank you Michael and Hibiki-san for taking the time to share your views with us at GoodCoffee.me!
Photography by Takahiro Takeuchi (@goodcoffeeme)