Pour-Over Philosophy: The Japanese Aesthetic in Coffee Culture

Food for Thought

While working from Japan last year, I noticed the Japanese coffee culture is quite different. New Yorkers predominantly prefer espresso-based coffee. The Japanese prefer pour-over. In America, we generally chase intensity, evident not only in our coffee but in our gastronomic cravings for rich, robust flavors, like the thick, pork-infused tonkotsu ramen, now overshadowed by the even bolder tsukemen. Curious about this cultural divergence, I explored various cafes in Japan. Now, back in New York, it’s hard to find pour-over coffee, likely because it’s too labor-intensive. Today, I came across it @kodawaricoffee in my neighborhood. The barista told me he only gets one order of it a day.

If espresso is death metal, seeking to evoke the most intense of emotions, pour-over is classical music, inviting one to discern and appreciate the individual notes and the spaces between them. It’s about understanding not just with the mind but with the senses. Listening to death metal or drinking espresso is like condensing the width of a rainbow into one inch—You can observe only a handful of colors.

A Western mind tends to force nature to serve what it seeks. If an intense caffeine high is what you are after, you figure out how to get it out of your coffee beans. The Japanese are more passive; they want to know the feeling inherent in each product of nature. They don’t impose their own feelings on nature. The best way to achieve this is to simplify and isolate, like drinking black coffee, but also enlarge to see the entire spectrum, like diluting to experience all possible flavors.

In the West, “diluting” has negative connotations, like “passive,” “feminine,” and “shadow” do—what Derrida criticized as “logocentrism” or “metaphysics of presence.” In a binary opposition, the one that signifies presence is privileged over the other that signifies absence. The undoing of this hierarchy is what he called “deconstruction.”

In this sense, we could say the Japanese preference for pour-over coffee is another manifestation of the inherently deconstructed nature of the Japanese aesthetic.