Coffee in Japan: Cozy Growth and Vending Machine Misfires
By Colleen Luckett, guest blogger
Coffee in Japan?
You don't really think of Japan and good coffee as being synonymous. Before moving to Japan, I didn't have high hopes for a thriving bean scene here. But the coffee market is perhaps as surprising as the country in which it resides.
According to the All Japan Coffee Association, which strives to unify the country's coffee industry in promoting coffee production, Japan is now third in the world in terms of total consumption among importing countries. Coffee consumption in Japan has soared over the past 40 years because of
- better marketing
- “Westernizing” of consumer habits
- emergence of medium and large-sized chains, such as Starbucks, Tully’s, and Mother’s
- growth of attractive small coffee shops (the number of coffee shops reached a peak of 162,000 outlets in 1982)
- ever-present canned coffee in vending machines
Innovative marketing drives Japanese coffee growth
A great example of this innovative marketing is the coffee industry’s android, “Pepper,” who has become the new global face of Nestle's Nespresso brand, nudging actor George Clooney out of the spokesperson running. Pepper enthusiastically sells coffee machines, asking you such questions as, “How do you enjoy coffee? Number one: An eye-opener coffee; Number two: A post-meal cup of coffee.” Will our android friends replace our favorite clerks at the local coffee shops some day in a Matrix-like coffee revolution? Only time will tell.
Vending-machine coffee: cool idea but not so great
With all this growth, the Japanese drink a lot of coffee, but people generally agree it’s not especially good coffee. Enter canned coffee from vending machines. Here's the deal: vending machines in Japan are AWESOME with a capital A. Did you run out the door, forgetting to drink your coffee in the morning? No problem-o. Just stop by a vending machine on every major corner for five seconds, and your day is saved!
But here's the other deal: it's still not great coffee. Most of it is artificially sweetened and milky. It also gave me heartburn worse than a whole pizza ever could—not that I could even eat a whole pizza, but you get the point.
In fact, when Kate Beard rated ten cans of coffee from Japanese vending machines in 2015, her scale was “from terrible to least terrible.” Her chief complaint (and mine) is the milkiness of nearly every canned coffee, plus the odd “industrial plastic” taste that sometimes accompanies it. She refers to Georgia Emerald Mountain Blend as “another milky coffee, tasting strongly of scorched sugar with a lingering turpentine finish.” And she judges Mt. Rainier’s Caffe Latté, which features commercials by Scarlett Johansson, as “the milkiest coffee yet . . . with the aftertaste of rubber bands.”
I did a fair amount of experimenting myself, including the promisingly named “American Coffee.” I'm not sure what I expected, but it tasted just like any other Japanese canned coffee from vending machines: weak, milky, with an odd aftertaste. The tagline “authentic flavor of coffee” scared me, too. Why WOULDN'T it be authentic coffee flavor? It is coffee, right? Right?!
I did manage to find a favorite that went down pretty smoothly, though. It might be in the name: Boss Silky Black. Once you go Silky Black, you never . . . well, you know where that goes. Or maybe in the manufacturer's insistence that it's "intelligent" and "stylish" while it "keeps you relaxed"? Almost like a perfect boy friend.
On a side note, Boss has some very funny coffee commercials, in which Japan takes a playful jab at itself, with Tommy Lee Jones as an alien from outer space who visits earth and makes humorous observations. Having been a teacher in Japan, this one is one of my favorites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dS5N8EAOtVE
Be sure to check 'em all out!
Have experience with Japanese vending machines or coffee you’d like to share? Drop us a note in the Comments section below.
Note: Colleen Luckett spent 3½ years living and teaching English in Japan until Spring 2017. She enjoyed writing about all things Japan on her blog, redheadinjapan.wordpress.com.