Barista Magazine

JUN-JUL 2018

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

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IKI SUZUKI SMILES A LOT. She's polite and gracious with her time. When fans seek her out for pho- tographs, she's happy to pose with them. She's also a driven, determined, and fi erce competitor. She has won the Japanese Barista Championship (JBC) three times and placed in the top four three other times. Still, whether she's onstage in the World Barista Championship (WBC) final round, at work in a busy café, or visiting coffee farms around the world, Miki is poised, calm, and cool under pressure. She's also charming, inquisitive, and eager to share what she's learned, and the combination of these traits has earned her success not only in the global coffee-industry spotlight, but also behind the bar as a teammate, as well. "She was so ambitious and energetic, striving to make a better cup of coffee than anybody," says Hidenori (Hide) Izaki, the 2014 World Barista Champion and a former coworker of Miki's at Maruyama Coffee in Nagano, Japan. "I could say she was like a wolf in sheep's clothing for coffee." Miki was born and raised in what she describes as an ordinary Japa- nese family in Yokohama. The middle of three children, she was always attracted to sweets, loved baking cookies with her mom, and dreamed of being a pastry chef as an adult. She couldn't understand why her parents would drink coffee, which they prepared on an automatic drip machine—she found it so bitter. It makes sense then that her fi rst independent encounters with coffee were at Starbucks locations in Japan. "My fi rst experience was a Caramel Macchiato Frappuccino," Miki says of that order, placed when she was 22. "It was tasty because it was sweet." Shortly afterward, Miki tried a drink at another shop, the newly opened Japanese outpost of longtime Seattle-based specialty roaster Zoka Coffee. "I ordered a latte, and they made beautiful latte art in front of me," she says. "Now it is a standard service. But for me, it was an amazing experience because at that time nobody could do latte art." It was an important moment for Miki not just because of the art in the cup, but because of how the skill to create it on demand for a cus- tomer lent significance to the simple interaction. "I was so impressed because [it showed that] a barista can give happiness for people ev- ery single time," she says, "and that was the first time I could enjoy coffee without sugar." She then landed a job at Zoka, and she says it was the start of her life as a barista and in specialty coffee. "At fi rst, I wanted to be good at latte art," she explains. "But after I started learning more about coffee and skills as a barista, I completely changed my mind. I realized what a beautiful world coffee is, and latte art is just one part of the beautiful coffee world." Miki says working at Zoka gave her a profound appreciation for coffee. "They showed me the beautiful story that human relationships, efforts, and nature are all necessary in order to make good coffee." Her time at Zoka provided Miki with a solid foundation upon which to base her career. She says, "I worked in a privileged coffee life with good people and good knowledge." She moved on from Zoka to Maruyama Coffee in 2008, where she started as a barista but was promoted to store management by the close of her fi rst year. She's held a number of jobs at Maruyama in the years since, including retail area manager and sales planning director, and she currently holds the position of innovation department senior director. No matter her job title, however, Miki's motivation has remained the same: to give others in Japan the same kind of opportunity and aware- ness she has had in the specialty-coffee industry. "My mission is to make specialty-coffee culture [in Japan]. Coffee is getting popular, but I feel it is still a kind of movement. I would like to introduce coffee for more ordinary people, and show how beautiful it is. For that reason, I am interested in education for [the] next generation. I would like to increase [the number of] baristas who can introduce the true value of coffee for [the] customer, and to make specialty-coffee culture for the future. Specialty coffee is my lifetime job." She's quick to credit her boss, world-renowned specialty-coffee authority Kentaro Maruyama, owner of Maruyama Coffee, as her most valuable mentor in the industry. "He raised the bar of what can be done with coffee," she says. That respect goes both ways: "She is open, honest, and communicates clearly," Kentaro says of Miki when asked to recall why Miki was such a great fi t at Maruyama right off the bat. "This is somehow unique in Japanese traditional society." Kentaro says that Miki had a special quality about her, a drive to improve, that has always been noteworthy, admirable, and inspiring to her coworkers and customers. "In the beginning, that quality in her was not so obvious, but as she grew in her career, this openness and honesty started to shine through more and more," says Kentaro. "Many customers come to see her. Coworkers respect her a lot, and for them to work in [the] same shop or environment is such a gift. When you are talking with Miki as a guest or customer, you feel special. You feel a special atmosphere. You feel lucky. That's why customers come back to her again and again." Though Miki has been an unqualified success as a barista compet- itor for many years, her experience didn't start off as she'd hoped. She remembers her first competition—the 2009 Japanese Barista Championship—fondly, but says, "It was super fun, and I was cha- grined as a result." Somehow coming from Miki, this makes perfect sense. She's talented and competitive, as well as social. While the event was a blast, her ninth-place finish didn't come close to living up to her standards. "Five baristas competed from Maruyama Coffee," she explains. "I was the lowest rank [among them]. Through this competition I realized [there was a] big distance between me and our other baristas. I thought, 'I am a barista without ability.' I deeply wanted to be truly a barista who can make high-quality espresso consistently, and can share the joy of coffee with people." Meanwhile, her fellow competitor and coworker at the time remem- bers that fi rst competition a little differently. "I came in seventh and Miki came in ninth," says Hide. "We both couldn't make it to fi nals, and we cried like babies together." Still, what really stands out to Hide from that competition was how obviously special and talented Miki was. "Miki competed for the fi rst time," he says, "and [she made it] to the semifi nal round out of 160 people! It was magic when I saw her [the] fi rst time on stage. She had such a natural talent to make people feel like you are the happiest person on the earth. She was outstanding from [the] fi rst time she competed." Miki, however, was on a mission. She decided to study more, train harder, and try again. She harnessed her determination to succeed, along with her growing coffee knowledge and her community of cowork- ers, to propel herself to a fi rst-place fi nish the following year. Another coworker of Miki's, Mie Nakahara, who won the title in 2009, would play a pivotal roll in Miki's evolution as a barista competitor. "[Mie] encouraged and taught me how to work as a store manager, and how to combine the competition events with daily work," Miki says. "When I fi rst won, I had [had] a very short career [in coffee], and no one expected me to win the championship. However, she and Gianni Cassatini of Nuova Simonelli were the only ones that believed that I would win. Mie is a mentor and a barista that I admire and trust more than anyone." As the winner of the 2010 JBC, Miki qualified to compete in the 2011 WBC, held that year in Bogotá, Colombia. Miki was thrilled at the chance to represent Japan and Maruyama on the world stage. "[There are] no words to explain how I was impressed," says Miki. 60 barista magazine

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