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Sounds of success: Coffee beans 'roasted by ear' by visually impaired people in Japan a hit

A workshop user, right, judges the roasting of coffee beans by sound and raises his hand to advise when to stop, at Ryoke Green Gables in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture, in January 2022. (Mainichi/Mineichiro Yamakoshi)

AGEO, Saitama -- Coffee beans roasted by visually impaired people at a welfare workshop in this east Japan city are gaining popularity, and sales in December 2021 were 1.5 times higher than the previous month, making it a mainstay of the facility's revenue.

    When raw coffee beans are roasted in a machine, they begin to crackle and pop in about 10 minutes. Just as tempura chefs use sound to determine how well the food is fried, the blind people who come to the welfare workshop Ryoke Green Gables in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture, use sound to judge the condition of the beans. Those with low vision divide their roles, and engage in tasks such as measuring the time. The timing at which the beans are taken out of the machine determines the flavor, and a one-second difference is said to affect the taste. The sound that is used as a standard for judging differs depending on where the beans come from and the type of beans.

    Recently, after the beans were roasted, everyone tasted them and shared their impressions. Some said, "This is exactly what it tastes like," and "It tastes just like Guatemala," while others suggested that the beans "should be roasted a little more." Through these exchanges, they continued to make improvements, and the beans were even praised as "tastier than those of imported grocery chains."

    The coffee drip pack named "Bokura wa Mimi de Baisen o suru" (We roast coffee by ear) is seen in Ageo, Saitama Prefecture, on Jan. 25, 2022. (Mainichi/Mineichiro Yamakoshi)

    In December 2021, during the year-end gift season, they roasted about 30 kilograms at full speed, and sales reached about 400,000 yen (about $3,260). The coffee bean products named "Bokura wa Mimi de Baisen o suru" (We roast coffee by ear) now account for 60 to 70% of the facility's total revenue.

    Koji Katogi, 49, the president of the nonprofit organization Minori that operates the workshop, is a former teacher at a prefectural special needs school for visually impaired children. At the time, he was consulted by many parents and guardians regarding career paths. The number of universities accepting visually impaired students has increased, and many of them have found employment at general companies. However, according to Katogi, there were quite a few companies that were not sufficiently prepared to accept such people, and some of them soon quit.

    Katogi left his job as a teacher to increase employment opportunities for people with visual impairments, and in April 2020 he opened a facility with a government subsidy. Initially, they were involved in work such as putting Braille on business cards, but in June 2020, an acquaintance of Katogi suggested roasting coffee beans. With the advice that visually impaired people with advanced hearing would be able to judge the roasting condition by sound by using an open-flame roasting machine, he purchased a gas-fired manual roaster. The product became so popular that they could no longer keep up with demand, so they replaced it with a larger machine.

    Roasting leader Kento Ikuta, 26, began visiting the workshop when he was unable to pursue his desired career path and then became in charge of roasting. "At first I wasn't sure if I could do it. Now, I am happy because we get a lot of orders. I want to continue roasting so that people will say, 'This is delicious,'" he said.

    (Japanese original by Mineichiro Yamakoshi, Saitama Bureau)

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