Friday, January 18, 2008

The Coffee of Japan

Coffee, Coffee Everywhere!

Everything in Japan comes in a nice tiny package and coffee is certainly no exception. Coffee comes in all variety of containers and vessels, though the most prevalent is the canned coffee from a vending machine. This really shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone as all of Japan is streamlined to move as quickly as possible. So why not have thousands of different kinds of coffee readily available for salary men on their way to important business meetings? I can’t think of a good reason. So then how does this frantic businessman with no time to spare choose from the multitudes of coffee choices? The answer is packaging. Japanese coffee cans feature a wide variety of labels and designs as well as all kinds of blends ranging from straight black coffee to coffee to milk to the more exotic seasonal coffees with cherry blossoms or fruit flavoring. The choices are seemingly endless which is great for coffee enthusiasts such as myself.

Before you get started sampling coffees, here is a little background on Japanese coffee. Canned coffee has been around in Japan since the nineteen sixties. In fact the term “canned coffee” comes from the Japanese market and was introduced to the US via companies like Nestle. In 1965,the UCC Ueshima Coffee Co. produced the first canned coffee with milk. Perhaps Japan’s greatest coffee achievement however was in 1973 when the Pokka Coffee Company introduced the hot and cold coffee vending machines, which anyone who has ever walked around in Japan realizes has changed forever how coffee is sold. Originally coffee was sold only in a slim 190ml can though over time the cans have varied and now both 190ml and 250ml cans are available and often equally priced. The main brands in coffe are the same as those for most major soft drinks and beer distributors. Some of the most poplar brands are Georgia which is owned by Coca Cola, Fire which is owned by Kirin, Boss Coffee which is owned by Suntory, Wonda which is owned by Asahi, Dydo, Nescafe and Roots which are all owned by Japan Tabacco, Itoen, Sangaria, and Coffee Time which are owned by Yakult, and CafĂ© La Mode which is owned by Clapis. With so many big names in the canned coffee business, it is no wonder that there is little room for independent competitors.

In the beginning, coffee cans were color coordinated to denote their flavor or contents. Thus most black coffees come in a black can and traditional blend coffees come in a brown can, but recently companies have begun to branch out for marketing reasons to attract more customers. The result is a wide variety of can colors, designs and shapes that are both appealing visually and unique. Common ploys include new coffee lines with English names proudly displayed on the front of the can like “Season’s Best” or “Demitasse Velvet Touch” or small descriptions in Engrish under the coffee’s name. For example the Roots’ “Simba Wind” proudly totes the slogan “Real technology brings you an aromatic coffee break and a fine life” just under its name and logo, which is a blue lion from The Lion King. Some of the most popular sellers are Boss’ “Rainbow Mountain Blend,” Wonda’s “Morning Shot,” and Georgia’s “Blue Mountain.” However, the only way to find out what you like is to go out there and try them, so grab a hundred and twenty yen and find the nearest vending machine. It shouldn’t be too hard.