You can’t miss it. Because it’s bright orange. And cute as hell. I am talking about a vintage retrofitted Citroën van parked in front of National Azabu in Hiroo. The van’s rear door is propped open, and from within emerges cup after cup of simply delicious pour over coffee.
This is Chibiz Coffee, the brainchild of owner Go Suyama. Undoubtedly a coffee aficionado and a pour over artist, he exudes all the qualities of a master at work: patience, attention to detail, the intensity of a scientist as he works, and of course, a steady hand while pouring. But, and quite refreshingly indeed, Go is the kind of guy you just want to get to know and chill with. From his signature button down and bowtie and impeccably groomed appearance to his captivating grin as he chats with customers over the laidback tunes of Jack Johnson, he is an original work.
When I started following him on Twitter and found out his hours at National Azabu, I knew I had to go and get to know him better. An hour turned into two as I hung out by his truck chatting with him, watching him in action, and me sipping coffee and eating baumkuchen. We talked the gamut of things, including trading restaurant recommendations. His English is impressive. Here are some of my takeaways from our conversation, because Go’s coffee and story are simply too good not to share with you all.
1. Follow your passion.
It seems like a cliché thing to say–do what you love and you’ll never feel like you are working a day in your life. But it couldn’t be more true in Go’s case.
Go has always loved coffee. About two years ago, he left his corporate job at a urban development company that revitalizes communities, and made the decision to start his own coffee business. The impetus–he and his wife were expecting their first child, and he wanted to do more for his family. The truck came next, an old Citroën, which he had the interiors retrofitted with space for counters, a stool, amongst other things.
This doesn’t leave much room inside the van for Go himself, but he has mastered swiveling from this counter to that one, moving from station to station, down to a science. But I imagine it can get crazy hot in there. On busy days, he has both burners going at once, steam from a couple hot water kettles, a grinder whirring in the background, and not to mention that damn Tokyo summer heat and humidity. In the winter time, well, he’s also out there, sporting a puffy coat.
By all accounts, Go is a coffee purist. There are no lattes or espresso drinks on his menu. He does one thing, and one thing only, and he’s good at it, if not exceptional. “I like the hand drip process,” he told me, because it requires his personal attention and skill. The method allows one to control several factors to extract the perfect cup–the water temperature, the speed and consistency of the pour, the type of filter, the rate of the drip, which all affects the taste. The hand drip method tends to produce a very clean tasting coffee, Go told me, and he wants his customers to taste all the complexities and nuances of flavor in his coffee.
2. Be original.
Go’s personal style and taste is infused into every aspect of his business. Chibiz Coffee is the product of Go’s creative self, and it is constantly growing and evolving. This differentiates Chibiz Coffee from other coffee shops, which often try to pattern themselves after foreign coffee brands which presents a style that’s too cookie-cutter and polished to be original. Rather, Go’s vision of Chibiz is a family-friendly coffee shop where kids and parents can hang out. “We love kids,” Go says, “that’s why we offer decaf for expecting mothers and always have little gifts for kids.” He also offers juice and cocoa for children.
If you are looking for something sweet to go with your coffee, Chibiz Coffee serves up baumkuchen, made by his good friend’s company Minamitei, who he has supported from the beginning. The soft, mildly sweet ring cake, of German origin, with subtle caramel flavor is a nice accompaniment with Go’s coffee.
If there were a “coffee baristas of Tokyo” yearbook, Go would most certainly be awarded with the “Best Dressed” title. His trademark bowtie gives him his mad superhuman coffee making skillz. Just kidding, but it does make him look exceptionally dapper. “I have over 10 bowties, “ he told me with great pride, and collecting more.
He’s also always impeccably groomed, not a hair or whisker out of place. From the shoulders down is the part most customers don’t often see (since he is seated behind the counter), but I would describe his style as preppy surfer dude meets well-appointed gentleman. That afternoon, I made him get out of his truck to (1) get some air, and (2) to snap this picture of him with his son.
3. Surround yourself with good people.
Chibiz Coffee is a reflection of the importance of Go’s family to him. Speaking of Go’s 2-year old son above, Go named Chibiz Coffee after him (Chibiz is a nickname for his son). And yes, his trademark logo is also an adorable drawing of his son wearing a bowtie which you’ll see imprinted on the cups, business cards, and pastry wrappers. “I like dressing him up in bowties all the time,” Go said, “he wears a bowtie and watches me make coffee.” Be on the look out for hand-sewn bowties for boys and men, for sale at the truck coming soon, made by his wife.
During the 2 hours I was there, several of his family members stopped by to offer their support–his wife and son, his sister-in-law, his niece, and some old friends. He sent them away happily caffeinated for the rest of the day.
It’s hard being a small business owner these days anywhere. It not only takes a family to grow a small, self-owned business, but it also takes a community’s support. Chibiz Coffee has somewhat of a following already, but there is still great potential for the business to grow. His success will largely be dependent on the community’s involvement in spreading the word about Chibiz by word-of-mouth, social media, and other avenues.
4. Don’t let obstacles trip you up.
You may have spotted his orange van parked next to T-site in Daikanyama in months past. However, with Tokyo’s strict food and drink vendor laws, he was not permitted to sell on the side of the road anymore. This meant shutting down his business. But, Go didn’t let this bump in the road keep him from making his coffee. Recently, he struck an agreement with National Azabu to set up his truck on the property in front of the grocery store, which literally keeps him off the street.
5. Hold yourself and your product to the highest standard and you will have a consistently good product.
Go has some rules about his coffee beans. He prefers bold, complex, chocolaty varieties. Coffee Chibiz is known for its Mandheling coffee, which is delicious hot or iced. Go personally sources his coffee from a local roaster. He uses beans within 3 days of roasting, and after that, acquires a new batch. This ensures his coffee is consistently fresh.
To also maximize taste and aroma, Go uses only a stainless steel cone filter with his Chemex, with no paper filter. “The paper will keep out coffee’s natural oils and flavors,” Go says. The result is a coffee that is consistently clean tasting, bold, yet full-bodied at the same time. A consistent, high quality product is what has helped him make a name for himself, and keeps the customers coming back over and over.
I watched him prepare about a dozen cups of coffee while I was there with him. The process is a methodical one for him now, yet he makes small adjustments to get the pour right every time. Nothing is rushed; he performs with the same focus and attention to detail with each cup.
But don’t let his focus stop you from chatting with him. He deeply enjoys getting to know his customers, and his van setup truly allows for greater personal interaction with customers than his counterpart coffee shops, where the customer orders and then wanders off to find a table. Here, you are not just an observer in his coffee laboratory. So, take those 3 minutes to have a chat with, introduce your kids, and watch him craft a delicious pour over (and get some style tips while you’re at it). Because for Go, life is coffee and community.
JUNE 1, 2015 UPDATE!! New summer hours for Chibiz! Find Chibiz Coffee at the front entrance of National Azabu on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10:30am to 6:30pm!!!
Follow Chibiz Coffee:
National Azabu, 4-5-2 Minamiazabu, Minato, Tokyo