One of the most impressive, ambitious facilities devoted to coffee in Boston is set to open on Friday, offering a coffee experience with a Japanese flair and a stated thirst to develop the perfect cup of coffee.
Ogawa Coffee — which opens its first American store at 10 Milk St., next to the Old South Meeting House in Downtown Crossing — will feature flights of coffee to taste, a signature espresso drink served in a martini glass, and latte art more intricate than many of us have seen.
And if there’s any doubt about the dedication of the Japanese-based company officials, the store will have stadium seating (stadium seating! at a coffee shop!) so that customers can watch baristas in action.
“Ogawa is coming to America to continue improving coffee for the next generation,” Yoshinori Uda, the chief executive and president of the company’s US division, said in an interview. “We come as a humble student to find new possibilities, and to continue to improve our goal to deliver that perfect cup of coffee.”
The Boston shop is the American debut for Ogawa, which was started in 1952 and now has nearly 40 stores throughout Japan. Its opening signals a rapid growth not only of Boston’s specialty coffee scene, but of the downtown offerings. George Howell, an Acton-based roaster and a pioneer in the American specialty coffee scene, is planning to open a new store around the corner this fall. Thinking Cup, the well-regarded shop that opened in late 2010, is a few blocks away on Tremont Street.
Boston’s coffee scene has improved dramatically over the past several years, but Ogawa’s decision to pick Boston as its first international location is one of the strongest indications of its growth. Store officials scouted Boston for at least two years and considered opening a store in New York.
Ultimately, they chose Boston because they felt that it shared many of the demographic characteristics of Kyoto, the Japanese city where Ogawa is based. The cities are similarly sized, rich in history, and have large college-age populations.
“New York, quite frankly we felt like we would be gulped in a massive city,” said Takako Oji, executive director of Ogawa’s US division and the Boston-based architect who designed the shop. “We didn’t feel comfortable. As opposed to Boston, the size, the culture, the demographics . . . we felt really almost at home compared with Kyoto where we come from.”
Boston and Kyoto became sister cities in 1959, establishing culture and student exchange programs.
The 42-seat shop will serve as a teaching lab as well as a coffee shop. The stadium seating in front of the bar is retractable and can be pushed against the wall during busy times to create more space. The shop was designed to utilize many different formats, store officials said, in a Japanese concept where one room serves different purposes.
“Our customers can oversee each step of the way from a viewpoint from above,” Oji said. “The stadium seating will also act as a classroom.”
The shop has about 20 employees. Many of them are from the Boston area, but the team is led by Haruna Murayama, a 2010 World Latte Art champion who moved from Japan.
In Japan, the latte art — the designs created in the foam — is far more intricate than what baristas typically do in the United States. Expect some of that at Ogawa, although officials say it is only an added bonus to how the drink actually tastes.
“In order to deliver the best cappuccino, there are different steps — one of which is the perfect foaming of the milk and perfect delivery of the milk when adding the milk to the espresso,” Oji said. “The art itself is icing on the cake.”
The shop also envisions offering coffee classes and bringing farmers from South America to talk with customers about the beans they grow.
“It’s almost impossible to invite the farmers that we have long-term relationships with to come to Japan,” Oji said. “But they’re willing to come to Boston; it’s much closer. . . . So we want this shop to be one of the seminal locations where we can connect the consumers with the growers.”
Ogawa’s coffee offerings include the house blend, made of coffees from Guatemala, Brazil, and Ethiopia. As in Japan, Ogawa intends to use ceramic cups painted with flowers expressing the changing of the seasons.
There will be several specialty drinks, including a single origin trio, which offers a flight of three single origin coffees that can be tried side by side for comparison. Baristas can also prepare a “signature drink,” which will periodically change. The first such drink is composed of foamed bittersweet espresso served in a martini glass.
Pour-over coffees will be prepared using a Kalita filter, a method popular in Japan that has recently been catching on among coffee shops in the United States.
The shop will serve breakfast and lunch, including some menu items popular in Japan such as teriyaki chicken tartine and the housemade gelatin coffee sundae.
“We do serve all-time American favorites such as ham and cheese croissants, oatmeal, and salad,” Oji said.
Japan is one of the world’s most passionate coffee markets, and it is a chief supplier to the United States in high-end coffee equipment. But very few Japanese roasters have expanded into the United States.
The growth has mostly been the reverse: Japan was the first international expansion for Starbucks, and it remains one of the company’s biggest. Blue Bottle, a popular California-based coffee company, recently opened a shop in Tokyo. And Boss Coffee, a Japanese company offering coffee in a can, has used Tommy Lee Jones, wearing traditional dress and uttering a few phrases, in its commercials.
Ogawa’s Boston hours during the week will be 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; on weekends it will open at 10 a.m. To celebrate its opening this weekend, the first 100 customers on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday will receive a small bag of Ogawa coffee beans.
Right now the company doesn’t intend to expand anywhere else in the United States.
“We’d like to focus on our first Boston shop,” Oji said, “and make sure this goes well before we think about expanding.”
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