There’s a lot of pride in the specialty coffee scene of Japan, where coffee, as with so many other aspects of Japanese culture, strikes a vivid balance between art, ceremony, tradition and innovation. It’s also a nation that takes great pride in its champions, as evidenced by the fact that Hiroshi Sawada — who in 2008 became not only the first Japanese barista to win the Free Pour Latte Art Championship, but the highest scoring latte art champion to date — has since partnered with Japanese coffee equipment manufacturer Hario for a line of distinctive coffee-prep products, and sportswear company Columbia for a line of barista apparel, similar to how famous athletes partner with goods-makers to become brands unto themselves.
It’s not a comparison that’s lost on Sawada. On the cover of his 2012 book, Hiroshi’s Latte Art and Barista Style, there appears a red, white and blue logo of a figure pouring a latte, designed in imitation/homage of the Major League Baseball batter-and-ball logo. The same year the book was published, Sawada’s much-respected Tokyo-based company Streamer Coffee Co. partnered with equipment seller Espresso Parts to co-brand a coffee “pro shop” in Tokyo, retailing all manner of tools of accessories for pro and hobbyist coffee handlers. Now Sawada has brought his brand to the US, in partnership with Chicago restaurateur Brendan Sodikoff. In mid-December, Sawada Coffee USA opened its doors in a space attached to Sodikoff’s Green Street Smoked Meats restaurant and bar at 112 N. Green St in Chicago.
Naturally, the creative drink menu at Sawada Coffee USA comes prepared on some top-shelf machinery and a full line of Hiroshi-wares. Simonelli Mythos Clima Pros grind the espresso, with a Mahlkonig Guatemala for brew and bulk grinding. Pourovers are balanced with preeminent coolness atop a Hario x Hiroshi Sawada Skateboard Pour-Over stand, and lattes adorned with some highly-defined wisps and swirls are poured from Hiroshi Sawada x Hario Free Pour Latte Art pitchers, of course.
The Nuova Simonelli Black Eagle espresso machine is customized for the establishment with artwork featuring a fierce black eagle and some very US-patriotic stars and stripes, driving home the message that this is not a Japanese-style coffee shop serving Japanese-style coffee. This is Sawada USA, an American coffee shop brand that straddles various cultures to offer patrons something totally unique. “We offer several Japanese influences, but they are presented in new ways,” Hiroshi Sawada told Daily Coffee News. “Our Sawada-style iced coffee features Shochu, a traditional Japanese spirit served in a traditional square sake cup. But infusing iced coffee with Shochu is a new tradition.”
Similarly, the Sawada Coffee USA signature drink is called a “military latte,” featuring Japanese matcha green tea combined with vanilla syrup, espresso and cocoa powder for a concoction that simultaneously embraces and bucks tradition. The coffee bar also offers a selection of “boozy steamers,” such as a scotch, honey and almond-milk steamer.
The coffee at Sawada USA comes from Chicago-based Metropolis Coffee Company, which provides fruity, bright single-origins for pourovers, and a custom espresso blend that’s a bit darker than perhaps the average on-trend café these days. “I do prefer a darker roast for espresso drinks, especially lattes,” said Sawada. “A darker roast with richer flavors like chocolate and caramel is very complementary with milk.”
Sawada will be sticking with Metropolis for the foreseeable future, as they enjoy their close relationship and there are no current plans on the table for a Sawada-style roastery in the US. “If we ever open a café in a country where Metropolis can’t ship, then we would consider a different roaster,” said Sawada, noting that there are no such plans at the moment, although the future is unwritten. “I currently live in Tokyo with my family. Someday, we hope to live in the US. I enjoy traveling to many countries and we might open additional Sawada Coffee shops if the opportunity feels right.”
As for how aspiring baristas might someday manage to pour designs with as intense definition and detail as in cups from the world champion latte artist’s hand, Sawada offered a few pointers. “The most important part is practice and developing a great milk steaming technique. Excellent espresso that is dark and rich is also important in providing good contrast and great taste,” he said. “Lastly, good coffee gear is helpful.”
Howard Bryman is the associate editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. He is based in Portland, Oregon.
But latte art? I mean, that’s like cake decoration to being a great pastry chef. It’s cute and it sells in the kiosks at shopping malls. But is it really about quality coffee?
Have you tried it Greg? It IS about quality coffee. And about trying new things. Latte art doesn’t dumb down the coffee. It’s a flair that adds to the enjoyment and the experience.
Hiroshi is everywhere. Eager to check out the Chicago location.