Saturday, February 5, 2011

Uncanny Canned Coffee

Canned coffee has become just as Japanese as green tea or sake

A can of Boss Café au Lait

Most people outside Japan, if asked to make a list of what they think are typical Japanese beverages, would probably come up with answers like « sake » or « tea », sometimes « beer ». But the country, famous for its tea ceremony tradition and beer brewers such as Asahi or Kirin, has been craving just as much for another drink over the past forty years: coffee. And though coffee was basically alien to Japan before, Japanese companies have found a unique way to make it a best-selling beverage that appeals to local consumers: to sell it in cans. From a European point of view, and according to many non-Japanese people I've talked with about this topic, selling coffee in a can is a sacrilege, a gastronomic heresy. Well, it might be, but this surely did not prevent the business to flourish within Japan – and now, in other East Asian nations – to the point that canned coffee (缶コーヒー, 'kan kouhii') can now be bought at every street corner in the country, from one of the countless vending machines that proliferate around Japan or from convenience stores and supermarkets. It is just everywhere, and there is no segment of the population that has not succumbed to the charms of canned coffee: its audience ranges from high-school students to salarymen, but appeals to women or construction workers just as much. There are dozens of brands and products on the market, and the industry seems to be growing more and more every year. As the canned coffee frenzy phenomenon is another uniquely Japanese one, I naturally wanted to look for the reasons behind it. How can the canned coffee success story be explained? How did it start? What are the marketing techniques used to promote it? Does it really taste that bad? Here we go.

The genesis of canned coffee

The first company to ever come up with the idea of keeping coffee in a metallic tin seems to have been, in 1876, the American coffee firm Chase & Sanborn, also famous for its old advertisement posters whose refinement and good taste have been entertaining generations of happy consumers for decades. 

They did worse.
Yet, the first coffee cans per se were born in Japan. The exact date and place of the invention being widely discussed, a consensus has emerged to consider that the starting point of the whole industry was the launch by UCC (Ueshima Coffee Company), in 1969, of their « UCC Coffee ». The Japanese Wikipedia page about canned coffee mentions that a coffee called ダイヤモンド缶入りコーヒー (Daiyamondo Kan Iri Kouhii – Diamond Canned Coffee) was launched as early as 1958, but it is rather obscure since it does not look like it has ever been popular, and the company behind it went bankrupt in 1964. So let's just follow the wind and consider UCC as the father of canned coffee. I've read somewhere that canned coffee, then a totally new item, was a big hit during the 1970 Osaka World Fair, thus participating in giving the product more visibility. Soon after, a competitor named Pokka launched in 1973 a type of vending machines that would keep beverages hot and/or cold, thus making hot coffee available anywhere and quickening its rise to success. After that, other companies joined the business, and canned coffee became one of the most widely consumed beverages in Japan. 

A can of UCC Milk coffee from 1969.
Hot, or cold, the cans are usually made of steel and are said to be specially designed to preserve the aroma and the virtues of coffee despite it sitting for a long time in a can. But let's have a look at some figures to see if we can get a clearer idea of the size of this industry.

A dynamic, constantly expanding business

Figures about the canned coffee industry are not the easiest to find, and no book seems to have ever been written on the topic. Nonetheless, upon looking casually through the United States Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service website ( – but it's probably already in your bookmark list... just kidding), I found interesting articles aimed at US companies who would consider entering the higly protectionist market of canned coffee in Japan. The first one, dated October, 1992, provides noteworthy information:

« Last year, Japanese consumers downed $7.3 billion worth of canned coffee products, accounting for nearly one in four canned beverage sales. The market is expected to grow at 8-12 percent per year over the next three years. […] Roughly 70-80 percent of canned coffee is sold [through the vending machine distribution], according to the Japan Soft Drink Bottlers Association. The remaining 20-30 percent is sold in convenience stores and supermarkets. »

Very well. Another article, from October, 2004 (twelve years later) states:

« Canned coffee is consistently one of Japan’s most popular drinks. […] Sales have doubled over the last decade.
In the past, canned coffee was made from either instant coffee or coffee extract. In 1994, however, companies switched to using regular coffee beans. In fact, the bean variety is promoted as a selling point. Recently, canned café au lait and cappuccino have become especially popular with women. »

What we understand from those two extracts is that the canned coffee industry is growing bigger and bigger every year, both in size and quality, despite the Economic depression, known as the « Lost Decade », that Japan had to face during the 1990s. Canned coffee accounted for « one in four canned beverage sales » in 1992 and we have reasons to believe that the proportion is even bigger by now. In the meantime, very big actors entered the market. Actually, there is so much competition on this market that I'm amazed to see all those companies still standing in spite of the common sense. One of the possible reasons to this situation is that, except from Pokka and UCC which still hold strong positions as of today, most of the market's coffee brands are actually parts of bigger, huge beverage companies such as Suntory, Kirin or Asahi, which smartly diversified their products to attract consumers. Those companies have strong networks, including their own vending machines operations (and, as I said, there are so many of those machines it defies imagination), so they can always capitalize on their existing infrastructures and scale economies to reduce costs drastically. 
Several vending machines in a row... Not an unusual view in the Tokyo landscape. (picture found on

Main canned coffee brands thus include UCC and Pokka, but also and more importantly Suntory's BOSS Coffee, Kirin's Fire and Asahi's Wonda, among many others. But interestingly and oddly enough, the most powerful actor on the market is Coca Cola Japan-owned Georgia (created in 1975), whose name comes from the State in which The Coca-Cola Company headquarters are located. It is certainly an unusual fact, but actually, in Japan, Coca-Cola grosses much more money with its coffee branch than with its worldwide-known sodas. For example, in 2007, Georgia cans' sales were twice as larger as Coca-Cola's. Other foreign companies have timidly tried to strive on the Japanese canned coffee market, without much success. Notably, the Swiss giant Nestlé, in spite of its worldwide success with its Nescafé range of products, failed at establishing himself as a leader on the Japanese canned coffee market. The US Foreign Agricultural Service explains:

« Stiff import tariffs, high shipping costs and Japan's complex product distribution. system tend to discourage many [foreign] beverage manufacturers from giving serious consideration to export opportunities. »

But as we start to get a slightly more precise vision of the industry, one can still wonder why has canned coffee achieved such a strong popularity with the consumers in Japan.

Of the Japanese liking for canned coffee: reasons behind a success

Why is canned coffee so popular in Japan? After some research and after giving it some thought, I came up with a short list of elements that can help to find an answer:
  • Coffee was not associated with any tradition or specific habits of consumption in the country, so people would not consider the fact of drinking coffee from a can heretic: there was no negative predjudice against this type of packaging. People were more or less not used to drinking coffee (not that it did not existed, but tea was much more popular), so they would not have perceived so strongly the alleged 'bad taste' of the coffee. In other words, as coffee was not sacred, there was no problem with the can format and its downsides. Plus, in the hectic working life that most Japanese employees must face, caffeine fitted right in the picture.

  • Canned coffee is everywhere. Convenience stores are found every 100 meters, and vending machines are even more common in all Japanese urban areas. Sometimes, even in the countryside, on a random route in the mountains, in an old temple or even at the very top of Mount Fuji, you will find a vending machine selling coffee. It is available anywhere, anytime, and therefore it allows people to take a caffeine break wherever and whenever they want. Typical places to drink canned coffee are a train platform, the road on the way to school, the front of an office building while taking a cigarette pause, or the street after eating lunch in a restaurant (since many traditional restaurants serve tea rather than coffee). 

    Salarymen taking a coffee break in the business district of Shinagawa
  • Canned coffee is cheap. The price of a can commonly ranges from 100 to 120yen (about 1 $US), depending on where the vending machine is located. For example, in Okinawa, the poorest region of Japan, canned coffee can be purchased for 100yen, whereas in Tokyo 120yen is the most common price. When you know that buying a coffee from one of Tokyo's many nice cafés often costs more than 500yen, no wonder why cans are more popular than cups. More recently, Starbucks and Japanese look-alikes have started a new trend of drinking coffee that is more similar to the one in the US (drinking from a big take away paper cup), but prices are still much higher than those of the vending machines. 

    The vending machine on top of Mount Fuji is the most expensive in the country.
  • Canned coffee can be enjoyed all year round thanks to the vending machines that serve both hot and cold beverages depending on the location and the season. To ensure the success of canned coffee at all times, manufacturers often release special season edition cans, with only the packaging changing whereas the taste often remains rather similar. 
  • The « cool factor » is also of importance. Canned coffee has its own marketing rules and practices that all competitors seem to have embraced. Basically, the idea is that canned coffee is manly and symbolizes an active and dynamic life. Canned coffee is a brief moment of happiness and peace amidst all the hardships that we endure every day. This trait is emphasized beautifully by the slogan of rather recent Boss coffee commercials: 「このろくでもない、すばらしき世界。」(Kono rokudemonai, subarashiki sekai) - which could be translated as something like « O Worthless, Beautiful World! » Another common marketing element in the « canned coffeeverse » is the constant reference to the West, commonly America but also France or Italy (two countries with strong coffee traditions), through English (sometimes even Engrish, nonsensical broken English that is often seen in Japan and never fails to amuse foreigners) names or slogans, Western-looking characters and TV commercials with famous American actors. For your enjoyment, here are three good illustrations of the last point:

The ironic thing is that as canned coffee is presented as something Western (since coffee in general is perceived as such, tea being the Japanese traditional beverage), it is not even sold in the West. But the laws of marketing are what they are, and it seems that the strategy has worked quite well for Japanese canned coffee manufacturers. The Boss Coffee campaign with Tommy Lee Jones posing on poster ads and appearing in many TV commercials as « Jones the Extraterrestrial » (宇宙人ジョーンス – Uchuujin Joonsu), and which is still going on as of today, is in my opinion a masterpiece. It sums it up all: a manly, taciturn Western man (well, he's actually an alien on an exploration visit on Earth to better understand human beings) tries different job activities to always come down to the same conclusion: life on Earth is difficult and overwhelming, but thankfully, Boss coffee is here to help us relax and appreciate the beauty of our miserable existences. 

As seen everywhere around the country (poster ad on a Suntory vending machine)
So canned coffee found a favorable ground in Japan for several reasons: there was no national coffee tradition so there was space to create one, it fills a void for stressed workers in need of cheap, easily available caffeine inputs, and it is marketed in a very clever, coherent and constant way that appeals to consumers.

Great... this leaves one question unanswered: how does canned coffee taste like? Can something be so successful and disgusting at the same time? Be warned, the following lines are higly subjective.

Taste-wise: An undeserved bad reputation

I'm a rather heavy coffee drinker. I usually like mine black, without sugar nor milk, but I also like a good cappuccino from time to time. I hate watery coffee, and I appreciate the sincere bitterness of the product. I was born in Paris, France, where everyone drinks coffee several times a day and where an expresso is the natural conclusion to any decent lunch. This does not make me a good candidate for liking canned coffee, and yet, I do like it. Actually, I love it.

Canned coffee does not have to replace your typical expresso, but it brings coffee consumption to another level: coffee can be enjoyed as a soft drink, anywhere, in a convenient way. There are a wide range of canned coffees, but the most popular ones usually have a smooth milky feeling and develop an intense sweet taste. The taste may not be as good as in a chic café where the beans are freshly roasted, but honestly, compared to what I get from the average coffee machines located in offices or student cafeterias outside Japan, I can't say canned coffee tastes bad. When you buy a can, you know what you're in for: a sweet, mild caffeine income that feels like a candy. Sugarless and black coffee is also available in the can format, but some of them are too watery and not really thrilling. I guess that to appreciate canned coffee, you have to consider it as « canned coffee », precisely – not a substitute to what you usually drink, but as another option, another way to broaden your horizons, another way to enjoy coffee.
Canned coffee is slightly addictive, and it is one of the things I miss the most since I've left Japan.
Allow me to finish with a short account of a pleasant experience I had in Japan:

One of my best memories with canned coffe is a night winter walk in the Western Tokyo suburbs: I was freezing cold, my hands were turning to ice and my throat badly hurt. Suddenly, in a street, I noticed this blue vending machine in the dark, lit and welcoming. After inserting a coin with difficulty because of my frozen fingers, I bought a can of hot BOSS Rainbow Mountain Blend, and as I was holding it with my two hands, the warm steel helped to ease my body and my heart. I slowly drank it as I walked back home, and as I came back to the warmth of my room, I felt an unprecedented sentiment of peace and detachment had filled my whole being. I fell asleep right after that.

Sorry for that last paragraph. 



  1. Ahaha! Pas mal, tu m'as presque réconcilié avec cette chose en boite! Effectivement le dernier paragraphe est emprunt d'une emphase peut être exagérée pour un café en boite.
    Et pour le prochain tu nous fais quoi? Le dilemme du thon rouge? La complainte du Fugu?

  2. Ca n'est pas encore décidé... en tout cas je suis ravi de ta quasi-conversion à cette façon tout à fait sympathique de consommer le café. :)

  3. Wow! That must have been the most readable article on coffee I've ever seen! :D

    Actually wasn't aware that you had a blog...will pay attention to further updates.

  4. how much did you get for this advertisement?

  5. Mastertigurius, or should I say Robaato-san: Well, I just discover that you have one as well:)
    I don't know if I'll have time to post regular updates, but I will try. I like to put the stuff I have in my mind into written words.

    Andrew: The Japan Canned Coffee Corporations Syndicate is a generous and totally respectable organization.

  6. Too interesting to quietly sit and read! I was pursuaded by every single statement..., but I've never been aware that canned coffees are commercialized as anything Western, because vitually anything in Japan is commercialized as something Western. I'm excited to go back to the country to testify your insight!

  7. Thank you!
    About the Western thing...Well, if you look at tea or saké commercials, they always insist on the Japanese persona associated with those drinks. たとえば:
    (commercial for iichiko shouchu)
    Very different from the above-embedded videos, isn't it?:)

  8. Yep, I have to agree about that advertisement. And true again that 酒 advertisements always star very Japanese characters.
    On the other hand, for example, beer ads always depict very Japanese situations, too. In adittion, many coffee ads other than Uchuujin Johnes use simply Japanese "salarymen" pictures. So right now as I'm recalling back my commercial life in Japan, things seem to be more complex, and I need to wait until I recover Japanese life!
    However, discussion is becoming too complex and I cannot afford it without conducting serious research on my own... :P