Archived: Coffee in Japan: Canned Convenience

While the kissaten offers a kind of nostalgic space to sit back and leisurely indulge in the atmosphere of yesteryear, canned and ready-to-drink (RTD) varieties of coffee comfortably make their home in the highly competitive world of fast-paced convenience. A mainstay that has carved out its own permanent spot in the over 5 million vending machines dotted across Japan, canned coffee is not only a pioneer product in the market, it has, over time proven itself to be its dominant contender. So influential is this canned beverage in fact, that the All Japan Coffee Association attributes canned coffee as one of the factors that contributed to the popularity of coffee itself in Japan as a whole.

Developed by UCC Ueshima Coffee Co., a coffee manufacturer and retailer based in Kobe whose products maintain their popularity today, canned coffee first became available in 1969. UCC refined technology that produced a type of coffee beverage that could be kept in a can for long periods of time without losing its flavour, and introduced the world’s first long-lasting canned coffee drink containing milk. However it was only after this product innovation was introduced during the World Exposition in Osaka a year later that canned coffee as a product began to really catch on.

The invention and subsequent spread of the hot/cold vending machine in 1973 by Pokka Corporation allowed canned coffee a convenient (and eventually ubiquitous) retail unit that could supply anybody a coffee drink in most places and situations – whether it be while waiting for the train, walking home, or in the office or at school. To date, canned coffee remains the main offering of the over 2 million vending machines dedicated to selling beverages.

Traditionally, canned and RTD coffee has been targeted towards male consumers, and the associated promotion and advertising reflects this. A slew of manly celebrities such as Brad Pitt (for Roots), Arnold Schwarzennegar (for Suntory) and, perhaps most well known, Tommy Lee Jones (for Boss), have all lent their chiseled visages to a particular brand of canned coffee. In addition, most of the popular brands of canned coffee utilise the salaryman (and a lot of wistful gazing into the distance) to reinforce the stoic testosterone of their campaigns.

In more contemporary times, the concept of easily available coffee has taken on a life of its own, and a wider variety of similarly convenient RTD coffee (or coffee-flavoured milk, if you prefer) has become readily available at any local convenience store or supermarket aisle. “Taste innovation” is particularly important to drink manufacturers, and novelty coffees that include unusual and traditional ingredients as well as products that are purported to provide numerous health benefits have also been popping up.

There is now an astounding array of options that differ in not only taste, but packaging: from chilled single serve coffee served in stylishly designed cups (カップ/チルドコーヒー) to coffee served in plastic PET bottles that can be carried around throughout the day (ペットボトルコーヒー) and paper carton packaging (紙パックコーヒー). Ready-to-drink coffee is no longer confining itself solely to the male demographic.

For regulatory purposes, there are four main coffee/coffee-related categories that broadly encompass most convenience coffee options: “coffee” (コーヒー) which contains the equivalent of 5g of coffee beans per 100g of beverage, “coffee drink” (コーヒー飲料) which contains between 2.5g and 5g, and “coffee added” chilled drinks  for anything less than 2.5g (コーヒー入り清涼飲料). In addition, coffee drinks which contain more than 3% milk solids are sometimes classified as “milk products”.

So what does this type of coffee actually taste like? Although the traditional canned varieties are typically milky and very sweet, there is now such a broad array of options that we decided to do a comparison of a couple of popular varieties.

In total we sampled fifteen different brands of coffee: ten in the “coffee” category, four in the “milk products” category, and one in the “coffee drink” category. As expected, the staple canned coffee varieties (Georgia, FIRE, Wonda and Boss) were generally very sweet with a milky taste vaguely reminiscent of coffee, and there was no discernible difference in taste worth noting.

A quick survey of opinions around the HUB shared office unanimously concluded that the “Healthia” coffee, a brand manufactured by pharmaceutical company Kao and marketed as an aid for weight loss, tasted the most terrible, while Roots Aroma was dark, (expectantly) aromatic and viewed pretty favourably for a canned coffee.

We also sampled chilled cup coffee varieties that are especially popular among young women. Dessert-themed chilled cup coffee is becoming an increasingly common sight with flavours like tiramisu, chocolate cappuccino and praline, making appearances on the shelves of convenience stores and supermarkets.

The market for this type of “chilled cup” is dominated by Morinaga’s Mt.Rainer brand, who first introduced this style of coffee in 1995. In partnership with Suntory, this style of coffee was also the way that Starbucks chose to enter the RTD market in 2005 with their ‘Discoveries‘ range. In terms of packaging, the slightly sophisticated appeal of this product partially lies in the fact that the cup design enables consumers to elegantly sip their coffee through a straw – an image which flies in the face of the stereotypical salaryman chugging down his can of coffee at the train station. Taste-wise, these varieties use manufacturing processes which do not involve huge temperature differences (like canned coffee), and have shorter storage lives which usually results in greater freshness and flavour of these drinks when compared to traditional canned varieties (something also reflected in their price tags).

Despite the trends towards freshly brewed coffee (convenience stores are installing espresso machines in their outlets for example) and the growing popularity of home-brewing, canned coffee doesn’t look like it is going to be disappearing any time soon. As a category of drink, both the products and experience of drinking this type of convenience coffee is quite distinct from how coffee is consumed elsewhere, and it makes up only one part of a person’s average coffee “repertoire”  so to speak. Both traditional canned varieties and RTD products exist alongside the kissaten as well as an eclectic mix of other cultural-social spaces including chain-store franchises, speciality coffee shops and cafes, and all of this is part of what makes the experience of drinking coffee in Japan so dynamic.



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