Japanese Canned Coffee Is The Best Thing to Hit Shelves Since Cold Brew

More and more versions are popping up in stores stateside.

No matter where you turn in Tokyo -- whether you’re craving an ice cream bar, peach Coke, or a pack of cigarettes -- there’s a vending machine waiting for you and carrying just what you need. This vending machine culture also extends to the lifeblood of folks from all over the world: coffee. And not just any coffee -- canned coffee; brewed, blended, and ready to drink. There’s hot versions, iced ones, milky lattes, bitter and black variations, labels touting beans from far flung locales like Hawaii, and flash-brewed varieties. The invention is so ubiquitous in Japan that the desire for canned coffee has begun to seep into new places, including the United States.

Canned coffee was invented in Japan back in the 1960s and viewed as a quick and convenient way to start the day. Ueshima Coffee Co -- or more commonly referred to as UCC -- is considered one of the pioneers of the canned coffee movement. Their first canned coffee product was released in 1969 and since then, UCC -- alongside many other Japanese companies -- have come up with new ways to innovate their products, whether that be adding milk and flavorings to the cans or introducing hot canned options in vending machines. But to begin to understand canned coffee, one must first understand coffee culture in Japan.

“Japanese coffee culture isn’t new,” says Keishi Fukata, the stateside brand manager of another canned coffee behemoth, BOSS Coffee. Even in the 1930s, Fukata mentioned that there were upwards of 10,000 coffee cafes in Tokyo alone. “These cafes served a similar purpose in Japan as they did in the west: as meeting houses and places of culture.”

“No matter what kind of lifestyle we have, coffee is always there for us,” added Yuki Izumi, who runs the coffee program at New York City’s Hi-Collar, a Japanese kissaten -- or coffee shop. Though Hi-Collar is the antithesis of canned coffee, offering fresh and carefully brewed cups with in-house ground beans, Izumi does acknowledge that she joyfully partook in the canned varieties when she was a student in Japan, particularly on mornings where she had overslept. Her go-to was a hot coffee from the vending machine, where she would warm her hands on the steaming can as she awaited her train.

With the rise of Japan’s metropolitan areas and fast-paced workforce, timing became everything and leisurely cups of coffee at cafes could no longer be considered a daily ritual. The shift to canned coffee was a natural progression; you can stop at a convenience store -- or conbini in Japanese -- to get your dose. Even more efficient are the vending machines, which Izumi told me, “are everywhere. You don’t need to wait in line to buy -- no need to interrupt anybody.”

This is a point that anthropologist Merry White also noticed about Japanese coffee culture, and noted in her book, Coffee Life in Japan. She wrote that, “Coffee consumption is broad-based, unlike the practices of matcha or tea-ceremony tea. It is also fast-moving.” For the busy commuter, canned coffee became the ideal method of getting their needed caffeine fix, without compromising on timing. The act could still be one of solitude -- just expedited.

japanese canned coffee vending machine
Ned Snowman/Shutterstock

As the popularity of canned coffee rose, beverage brands clamored to establish their own versions. BOSS Coffee, which was launched in 1992, is owned by Suntory -- the global beverage company that also owns Jim Beam and Maker’s Mark. They aren’t the only brand that has dipped their toes in both alcohol and coffee; Kirin, a Japanese brand famous for their beer, also produces their own version of canned coffee. But just because these businesses share a parent company with liquor brands doesn’t mean that they don’t make a great cup -- or can -- of coffee.

“Japanese canned coffee brands, like BOSS Coffee, have had a lot of time to grow along with consumer tastes,” Fukata said. “Canned coffee was born in Japan, so we’ve had more time than any other country to learn how to get canned coffee right.” This reflects in the sales; Japan leads the rest of the world in sales of ready-to-drink coffee, with the US following closely behind in second place. According to the Japan Times, the canned coffee industry was worth 739 billion yen in 2013 (that’s roughly 6.7 billion dollars). In fact, just last year, BOSS sold over 100 million cases of their canned coffee -- marking it as the third largest beverage in all of Japan. That’s a lot of coffee -- especially considering the price of a can ranges between 90 to 150 yen, which in most cases means spending less than $1.50 on coffee. It’s a much cheaper alternative than a latte at Starbucks in Japan, which clocks in at a little under $4 for a tall.

For BOSS’ own canned concoctions, the brand boasts flash brewed coffee -- a technique in which the coffee is brewed hot to maximize the taste, but chilled just as quickly to preserve flavor. This ensures the coffee tastes as close to a fresh brew as possible, while maintaining a silky and smooth mouthfeel.

“Canned coffee has made an indelible mark on Japanese food culture, and it isn’t going anywhere any time soon,” Fukata said. Not to contradict him, but Japanese canned coffee is going somewhere -- and that somewhere is across country lines and into the global marketplace, including in the US. BOSS conveniently offers their coffee on Amazon, and many Asian grocery stores carry a wide variety of Japanese canned coffee that used to only be available in Japan, but can now be sipped stateside -- though we unfortunately don’t have the same culture of coffee-filled vending machines on every block. Maybe one day soon.

The US also has its own fledgling canned coffee culture, with brands like Starbucks and La Colombe providing their own versions. Despite that, there are still stark differences between the two countries’ brews. For one, Japanese canned coffee tends to be much smaller in size, typically clocking in at around 6 ounces in stout cans, whereas American canned coffee is sleek, slender, and holds roughly 9 ounces of coffee -- if not more. Secondly, though words like “nitro” and “cold brew” are thrown around and displayed on labels, the proprietary flash brew technology isn’t the same across both countries.

Whether it’s hot or iced, black or milky, there’s no way to beat the convenience that is brewed coffee in a can. To repeat what Izumi said, no matter what, even if it’s in a can, “Coffee is always there for us.”

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Eatmail for more food coverage, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Kat Thompson is a staff food writer at Thrillist and enjoys milky and sweet canned coffees (but would rather have milk tea to be honest). Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.