Why a coffee column?

Remember your first cup of coffee? I do. I was 18 years old, going to college in the daytime and working at night. On the way home from work one night, a friend and I stopped at a coffee shop. Usually a tea drinker, that night I ordered coffee. Bitter stuff, and it was a long, long time before I had a second cup.

My next memorable cup of coffee was drunk here in Japan, on April 1,1979, the day I arrived from the United States. A friend met me at the airport and took me around town to visit her friends. Everyone wanted to meet in coffee shops. By nighttime, after perhaps 5 or 6 cups, I was zinging across the Kansai at an altitude of 10,000 feet, every brain cell shrieking on maximum overdrive from all that caffeine. For someone not used to drinking even 'American' coffee, it was quite an introduction to the power of Japanese style coffee. I was impressed.

I was also hooked, and began spending more and more time in coffee shops. The language came slowly, but the coffee culture came quickly.

One of the things I learned is that, as in many countries around the world, coffee is an important part of Japanese culture. Indeed, considering the huge number of coffee shops in Japan today, it would be easy to assume that coffee, not tea, is the traditional Japanese drink. Today, when someone uses the word "kissaten", they are usually referring to a coffee shop. And when they say, "let's go drink some tea," they will invariably end up ordering coffee! Yet coffee has been in Japan for less than 150 years, arriving in the early part of the Meiji era.

There was an entire post-war generation of Japanese for whom the hotel lobby coffee shop was the center of their social activities. To many housewives, these coffee shops were what Ginza bars were to their corporation husbands-the pinnacle of high society. They would dress in their finest designer fashions to meet their friends, and to see and be seen.

Businessmen from small companies and freelancers working out of their homes would also meet clients in the hotel coffee shop. It was cheaper than setting up a meeting room at the company, and far more stylish.

Another generation took root (and found voice) in jazz, rock, and classical music coffee shops, many of which featured audio systems that were bigger and more costly than some of their patrons' apartments.

The style of coffee drinking in these places -- lingering over a single cup for hours on end -- meant that the coffee houses were actually renting sitting space, not serving coffee. And we all know how expensive real estate is in Japan.

But today, there is a new generation that has made coffee a regular part of their home routine. These folk are flocking to Starbucks, Gloria Jean's and other high-end coffee shops. And you can be sure they are not spooning their coffee out of a jar of crystals or sipping it from a can at home.

Want proof? Go to your local consumer electronics store or even your favorite coffee shop. Chances are you'll find a large selection of automatic drip coffee makers, as well as a few of a type you may not have seen before. These are steam type espresso makers and they've only just started to have a presence in Japan. You may even find one or two true espresso machines. And it is here, in the ever increasing variety of home brewing equipment, that the current revolution in Japan's home coffee drinking habits is most visible. Suddenly, great tasting coffee can be brewed at home by the average coffee drinker with little expense, expertise, effort and time.

That's what this column is going to be about: how to make a great cup of coffee at home. We'll be looking at the various ways coffee can be brewed and the types of beans and roasts that produce specific styles of coffee,

We'll also be trying out simple methods and brewing rules that can dramatically improve a home-brewed cup of coffee, as well as advanced techniques for attaining that most elusive goal, the perfect cup.

We'll spend at least a few columns exploring ways to get all of the above for not much more-and in many cases, quite a bit less-per cup than you'd pay for a cup of joe at the local coffee shop. Mail ordering figures big here, but we'll also be looking at several local sources for beans and equipment.

And finally, we'll spend some time looking at sources of information about coffee, including books, newsletters and even internet sites.

I hope you find this column fun and informative. Happy brewing!