“I want to raise the level of Japanese espresso culture” Interview with Noboru Ueno, representative of the Japan Latte Art Association (Part 1)

Noboru Ueno, representative of FBC International and representative director of Japan Latte Art Association. He has devoted himself to promoting Japan's coffee culture, including being the first to introduce Seattle-style cafes to Japan and serving as the executive director of the Japan Specialty Coffee Association.

Mr. Ueno, who has been involved in latte art competitions for many years, established the Japan Latte Art Association in 2022. We asked him about latte art and his thoughts on espresso.

Spotlight on baristas working hard on latte art

----I heard that Mr. Ueno was the first to bring Seattle-style espresso and cafe latte to Japan, and in 2014 he held Japan's first world latte art competition. What kind of thoughts did you have there?

Mr. Ueno (titles omitted below): In Italy, latte art in the shape of hearts and leaves, known as rosettas, has been done for a long time. However, we are not holding any tournaments or anything like that; we just serve the food to customers who are waiting. David Shomer, the owner of a cafe called Vivace in Seattle, thought that latte art could add value and started it.

Then, the world's first latte art competition was held in Seattle in 2002, and the first one in Japan was in 2014, when I held an exhibition called "Coffee Fest."

I brought espresso and latte to Japan a few years before Starbucks came to Japan.

At the time, no one in Japan knew about espresso or latte, so I brought back paper cups and lids from America, and in order to spread the word, I spent one day walking the streets of Yaesu near Tokyo Station with empty cups to spread the word. I would even walk around pretending to drink for about 2 hours.

----In the past, very few people took out coffee in a cup.

Ueno: Nowadays, everyone carries one with them, but at that time there was no one in Japan. The only thing I had was to buy it from a vending machine at the expressway service area and put it in the driver's seat cup holder.

Then, as the executive director of the Japan Specialty Coffee Association, I was involved in the management of the Japan Barista Championship (JBC), but I felt that I wanted to put more spotlight on baristas who are working hard on latte art.

The result of working hard on latte art is the barista's original job of making customers happy.

At first, everyone is only interested in improving their own latte art skills, but as they start doing it, they realize that the customers are happy and that this is a service that other shops don't have. Before you know it, the customer's joy will become your own, and your hospitality will improve and your store will become more comfortable.

The latte art competition is a place to get people interested in latte art, and a great opportunity to show off your barista skills. Now that digital tools such as Instagram and YouTube make it easy to spread information, I think latte art is the most suitable.
----It's easy for anyone to understand.

Ueno: Nowadays, if you go to an exhibition in Milan, Italy, you can see a fully automatic machine that can draw beautiful latte art in the same way over and over again. But that's not the case; the word barista itself means "ista" = a person who works in a bar, and I want to value people even more.

I hope that the competition will draw even more attention to baristas, and that they will firmly establish themselves as a profession in Japan.

The profession of “barista” in Japan and the world

----Have you noticed any differences between baristas in Japan and around the world through the world competition?

Ueno: When it was first held in 2014, I think Japan was the best in the world in terms of technology, but from the following year in 2015, Taiwan and South Korea won, and there has been no Japanese champion since 2014, and now South Korea is by far the best. is the top.

----Korea is so popular.

Ueno: The next countries are Taiwan and Thailand. Nowadays, cafes in Thailand are all equipped with the latest espresso machines and grinders, and the baristas are also cool. At resort hotels in Thailand and Vietnam, when it comes to coffee, it's always an espresso machine, so there's a lot of demand for people in those places.

Barista Aaron, who won the Japan Specialty Coffee Association's latte art competition, runs a cafe in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, is extremely popular, and even has his own brand of apparel.

----If you put in the effort as a barista, something will come back to you. I feel that the current situation is different from Japan.

Ueno: Japan has been overtaken. Try going to Bangkok in Korea or Thailand. For example, in a cafe that is an old warehouse, there is an island-shaped space in the center for Shin baristas to work in, with seating for the customers around it. Baristas are like stars on stage.

----Overseas, the profession of barista is something that young people aspire to and aim for, and it is something that they hone their skills.

Ueno: A Vietnamese boy who came to Japan in 2019 at the age of 20 and won 4th place in a latte art competition is also a star in Vietnam, and being a barista has become a coveted profession in Asia.

But what about Japan? In the first place, even if you brew it fully automatically or with a siphon, you are still considered a barista.

----You may not know that brewing espresso requires skill. Is there a difference in the penetration of cafe culture?

Ueno: That's right. Japanese people have long been a rare Asian people who drink coffee, and their coffee business styles are diverse, from coffee shop types to Doutor-style coffee shops and even vending machines. Then a new type of product like Starbucks arrived, so it took a while for it to spread.

Paper cups come in many different colors these days, but when I first tried to use the black paper cup, I was told at customs that I couldn't use it because it wasn't clean unless it was white. Still, I managed to get it in, and after that, other chain stores started using various types of cups, but up until then they didn't have colored paper cups.

Japan already had the infrastructure for coffee, so new products were only gradually added up, slowly climbing the stairs.

----This situation is unique to Japan.

Ueno: Korea originally only had instant coffee, so if Starbucks came there, the number would suddenly increase.

Therefore, coffee in countries other than Japan is espresso-based. Since we started with espresso, we mainly serve lattes and cappuccinos. On the other hand, there are places in Japan where espresso is not mainstream.

----It is true that espresso culture has not spread widely in Japan.

Ueno: But espresso has about half less caffeine than pour-over. I wish major chain stores would say more about this.

----That's right.

Ueno: I think there are many things like this that only I know about.

Even when it comes to latte art patterns, people don't know the difference between leaf and rosette patterns, and American baristas, Taiwanese, and Koreans don't even know the difference.

The reason is that this pattern was called Rosetta in the 1980s, so today's baristas in their 30s and 40s don't know about it. But at that time, I had already heard in Seattle why it was called Rosetta.

Isn't there a plant called fern? The fern that grows on the ground has one shaft in Shin center and many leaves around it. That's called Rosetta. Or a large tree with one thick root growing straight up and branching out from it, which is also a rosette.

I also believe that through the activities of the Latte Art Association, we need to convey these kinds of truths correctly.

Aiming to improve the status of baristas

----You mentioned the Japan Latte Art Association, but do you have any future plans or prospects for the association?

Ueno: Similar to commercial bookkeeping, we would like to create something that would prove the skills of baristas when companies hire them. For this purpose, I thought it would be better to become a general incorporated association rather than a private company, so I established the Japan Latte Art Association.

I'm currently in charge of classes at a vocational school, and for example, if you get a Level 3 exam while you're in school, the company will know that you can stand up to the level 3 and stand in front of the machine.

I am planning to start this 5-stage latte art skill certification exam within the year.

Just like driving schools, we will give cafes from Hokkaido to Okinawa the right to conduct tests and entrust them with the practical tests. There's no point in acquiring it if you can't put it to use, so we're working to spread the knowledge to those who hire.

----It would be great if the barista profession would be more recognized by society with such qualifications.

Ueno: I would like to improve this skill certification exam and make it a national qualification. As a general incorporated association, I would like to create a track record and bring it to the table.

Regarding ``food and beverages,'' there is a national qualification for chefs in ``food,'' but there is no qualification in ``drinking.'' Isn't it strange that drinks are also something we eat? Even things like washing your hands before brewing coffee are left up to the store.

In addition to the safety of eating and drinking, I am thinking about various other implications. Even at famous Italian restaurants, the cooks are of course professionals, but the reality is that coffee is brewed by part-time workers.

----It also means that the status of baristas is viewed as low.

Ueno: That's why I believe that in order to improve the status of baristas, we need to show the flag and have someone raise the flag and gather under this flag. That's what the Latte Art Association is for.

Continued in the second part

In the second part, we asked Noboru Ueno to talk more about the latte art competition and what he hopes for baristas.
looking forward to.