Food & Drink

America Can Thank Japan for All Its Coffee Trends

Most people think of the Japanese as tea-drinkers rather than coffee addicts, but that stereotype couldn't be further from the truth. Coffee overtook tea in popularity at the end of the 19th century, and since then Japan has become the third-largest consumer of coffee in the world.

One might also assume that coffee-nerd culture has dripped down to Japan from American shores, but most of what you see in today's snobbiest coffee shops is heavily influenced by trends imported from the Land of the Rising Sun.

To learn more about how Japanese coffee culture has influenced our own, we spoke with Boston University professor of anthropology Merry White and consulted her book Coffee Life in Japan, a historical memoir that explores the complex role that coffee plays in Japanese society. Here are just a few of the ways Japan's coffee trends influenced our own.

Pour-over is nothing new in Japan

Recently every third-wave coffee shop on the block has adopted pour-overs as the way to showcase its best beans, but despite their reputation as the most technologically advanced society on the planet, Japanese coffee drinkers have long favored more hand-crafted coffee methods and to this day many coffee shops don't even have espresso machines. It's telling that the two biggest makers of pour-over equipment, Hario and Kalita, are both Japanese companies.

Barista worship is even bigger in Japan

Like bartenders and chefs, baristas occupy the hallowed realm of skilled service industry professionals that gain local reps, compete in national competitions, and just generally intimidate everyone around them. In the United States this wave of professional baristas coincided with the coffee shop becoming more of a virtual office, but long before there were national barista competitions (this is actually a thing), the Japanese revered the barista for their kodawari, an intangible quality linked to the pursuit of perfection seen in other Japanese culinary arts like sushi. The barista in Japan is expected to control every aspect of the drink, and certain shops demand that customers specify their milk and sugar preferences before a cup is brewed so that the barista can account for the addition.

All the cool kids are now drinking Japanese iced coffee

There are two main styles of iced coffee associated with Japan that have recently made their way into American coffee shops. The first is just generally called Japanese-style, or hot bloom iced coffee. By pouring hot water over grounds that drip onto ice, the method captures the aromatics that only result from hot brewing processes. It makes one cup at a time, the meticulousness of which gels with Japan's idea of the maker masterfully crafting a drink. It also dominates taste-tests.

The second popular style innovated by the Japanese actually came by way of the Dutch. Also known as the Dutch Drip, the method drips cold water over beans very slowly, roughly at the pace of one drop per second. It takes hours to make a single cup, but the striking tower-like brewer has still started making appearances in shops, most notably Blue Bottle under the name Kyoto-style.

The Japanese invented instant coffee

It happened in Chicago, but the invention of instant coffee can be credited to Japanese scientist Dr. Satoru Kato in 1901. This is one instance where the US actually beat Japan to adopting the trend, which didn't take off stateside until the '50s and gained popularity in Japan a decade later, albeit with a baffling image of sophistication and eliteness rather than convenience.

Packaged coffee to-go arrived in Japan in the '70s

Starbucks' refrigerated Frappuccinos might be the packaged cold brew that hit the radar of average Americans, but Japanese coffee conglomerate Ueshima has been selling canned coffee in Japan since the '60s, with Pokka Coffee following with coffee vending machines in the '70s. Now nearly every American specialty coffee retailer sells its own type of bottled cold brew, many in Tetra Paks that mimic a packaging that's popular in Japan.  

The Japanese are willing to pay more for better beans

Pricing structure in American coffee shops has recently started changing, with trusted shops given more leeway to adjust prices based on rarer, single-origin beans. Japan is the king of this practice, where coffees like Jamaican Blue Mountain and Hawaiian Kona are household names, predating trendy varietals like Panamanian Gesha by decades. The demand for rarity is so high that some shops even offer vintages of beans dating back decades.

The Japanese have also been known to bid higher than any other country at auction on coffees that have won awards at the Cup of Excellence, the coffee world's most established marker of quality. This willingness to pay more for unroasted beans drives up the price, meaning the average cost of a cup of coffee (roughly $6) can rise to upwards of $20. This level of surcharge is rarely seen in the States, but it is popping up at the occasional shop like La Devocion in Brooklyn, where a shot of rare Colombian espresso can run you $10.

Latte art is next level

Baristas in America pride themselves on perfecting geometric milk patterns like hearts, rosettas, and tulips, which, real talk, all look basically the same. The Japanese have taken latte art to surrealist dimensions and the superstar of the genre is Kazuki Yamamoto, whose 174k Twitter followers eagerly await photos of 3D foam creations that run the gamut of everything from astronauts, to video game characters, to memorials of the Paris attacks.

Specialty coffee has also copied the siphon

One of the flashiest coffee-brewing techniques is the siphon, a tall glass contraption where water is boiled over an open flame and forced through coffee grounds, then drips back into a beaker. Its inefficiency has made it a rarity in the States, but specialty shops are starting to offer them to customers wowed by the spectacle. Since Japan places such heavy emphasis on the barista as a master craftsman, more meticulous preparations like the siphon are very popular, to the point where the brewing style has developed its own national competitions.

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Dan Gentile is a staff writer at Thrillist. He very badly wants to visit Japan. Follow him to waiting patiently for an invitation at @Dannosphere.