Exploring and sampling the vending machine coffee culture in Japan.
BY JOHN W. HORTON III
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE ONLINE
Photos courtesy of John W. Horton III
For many who have grown to love visiting Japan, canned vending machine coffee is synonymous with the country. For those of us who love sugar, it’s delicious and addictive. If you spend any amount of time in Japan, you may be tempted to try it, not only because it’s cheaper than going to a corporate chain or a convenience store, but also because of its colorful labeling, unique variety, and rarity outside of Japan.
American actor Tommy Lee Jones is famous for his melancholy BOSS Coffee ads and commercials throughout Japan. BOSS Coffee is one of the most popular makers of these vending machine drinks. To make it through a visit to Tokyo, you need a whole lot more than a good suit and a curriculum vitae; you also need a jolt of canned coffee from a vending machine to keep up with all the salary men and stay alive in the crowded subway trains.
It doesn’t take long to find canned coffee in Japan, because of the countless amount of vending machines in the country that surround businesses and train stations, and which are sometimes located in the most remote places throughout the country. According to a 2017 Japan Times newspaper article, there are 4.9 million such machines.
Canned coffee history
Tadao Ueshima is known as the “father of coffee” in Japan. He founded Ueshima Coffee Ltd. in 1951 in Kobe, a city known as an international hub for trading. In 1969, his company produced the world’s first canned coffee. Ueshima was appointed by the Japanese government in 1965 to observe coffee production in Ethiopia and three other East African countries. In 1933, after years spent importing Western products, he tasted his first cup of coffee and was hooked. During WWII, coffee was banned as an import to Japan but resumed in 1950. The purpose for creating canned coffee was that it would be easier to take on a train; Ueshima realized this after trying bottled coffee with milk and not being able to finish his beverage. He realized that canned coffee would be a more practical beverage.
I did a taste test of several canned coffees to find out how they rank in my opinion. Cold cans are common, but some vending machines offer a hot or most likely a warm can, as many are available from a machine or from a convenience store. We’ve also included links to online stores where you can buy them outside of Japan. Ganbatte!
This cold can has a smooth initial taste and roasty aftertaste, and the one I had was a little chalky—you might want to shake it up, as you would for most cans. This is because you might not know how long it has been in the machine or at your local supermarket. If you like your coffee sweet like me, it may not be for you, but if you enjoy a mild sweetness and a little kick at the end, then this coffee blend is for you.
A cold can, FIRE has a smooth taste all the way through. There is no aftertaste, yet it has a sweet, mild flavor—not for those who like a traditional sugar coffee bang. The lift is mellow, as there is no initial strong impact nor at the end. It’s found in most vending machines throughout Japan, and it will get you going!
Asahi doesn’t do just beer, but coffee too! Wonda Morning Shot is a canned coffee that has a consistently sweet and roasty taste. The first gulp is smooth, then the roasty taste settles in. It comes close to what we would expect from an actual cup of coffee. It has a good jolt, and it’s actually one of my favorites.
Another smooth and consistent roasted taste, it tends to linger on your tongue. Maybe it’s just my taste buds, but it’s not too sweet nor too roasty. Perhaps it is a little metallic? I’ll stick to the Wonda’s Morning Shot.
A very sweet tasting brew, this one probably has the most sugar of any canned coffees I tasted. If you like a rush, then this is the choice for you. I like my coffee with a lot of sugar and milk, so this is my go-to canned coffee. It’s not bitter and will get you going.
This one has a nice roasted initial taste and aftertaste. It is a little bitter, so if that is your preference, this might make you feel good when you are trying to get into your coffee zone.
OK! I’m totally razzed after drinking all of this canned coffee in one sitting. I need a break!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John W. Horton III is a 47-year-old writer and teacher who lives between Kawaguchi, Japan, and Los Angeles. His novel Alvarado, published by Atmosphere Press, will be available September 1 on Amazon.