Coffee in a can from a vending machine is big (and manly) in Japan

200px-Ucc_canned_coffee.jpg

When I was a teenager in Tokyo, I used to drink coffee all the time &mdash from a can, from a vending machine, often at the train station on my way home from school. In went a 100 yen coin, and out came a piping hot 250 ml can of delicious brew, pre-mixed with cream and sugar. Coffee in a can is everywhere in Japan, and when I moved to the US, I wondered why it’s not as prevalent here. Why? It’s so much more convenient and cheaper than searching for a Starbucks.

The Japanese like to compartmentalize everything–recent years have spawned everything from instant noodles to beef and potatoes served in cans out of vending machines. Canned coffee is said to have originated in Japan in the late 1950s, but it really took off around 1973, when beverage company Pocca invented the Hot/Cold vending machine. After that, everyone from Coca Cola to beer manufacturers like Asahi and Suntory came out with their own versions of coffee in a can. The UCC version, pictured here, has been around since last sixties, and you can still find it in vending machines. Amazing, right? Today, you can get almost any variation of coffee in a can in Japan &mdash just like how you can go crazy on options at Starbucks.

coffee in a can.jpg

Interestingly enough, canned coffee is marketed in Japan as a very cool, manly, American thing. Celebrities like Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, and Arnold Schwarzenneger have all appeared in Japanese canned coffee ads over the years. Here’s the Governator for Go West Coffee, circa 1987:

and Brad Pitt for Roots:

In all my years in the US, I have yet to see a manly man drinking coffee from a can in America. I see tons of salarymen downing this shit in Tokyo when I go back home, but no, not here. At best, a latte in a paper cup. I guess it’s another one of those Japanese things disguised as an American thing.

About Lisa Katayama

I'm a contributing editor here at Boing Boing. I also have a blog (TokyoMango), a book (Urawaza), and I freelance for Wired, Make, the NY Times Magazine, PRI's Studio360, etc. I'm @tokyomango on Twitter.
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46 Responses to Coffee in a can from a vending machine is big (and manly) in Japan

  1. Downpressor says:

    Lisa why didnt you include Boss? Boss is the boss of them all

    @coffee snobs, suck it. these werent meant for you anyway.

    @7 there are several black unsweetened ones available

    @12 I’ve tried it, its just coffee w/ milk & sugar, tastes OK

  2. MrC says:

    POCCA used to have a brewery/cannery up in American Canyon in northern california. Never quite took off and they left the US market.

    You can get UCC and other canned coffees in Japanese enclaves and most asian markets at least here in cali.

    The Pocca was my favorite, but UCC is pretty good.

    Of course working for a Japanese owned company in SF I get more of this cultural immersion than most folks…

  3. Tommy York says:

    I’ve found canned coffee in both the Yunnan province in China, and plenty in Taiwan. “Mr. Brown Coffee” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr._Brown_Coffee) not only sold coffee grounds, but had plenty of different flavors of canned coffee. I found it pretty universally delicious. The coffee I found in China & Taiwan, however, didn’t seem to insinuate that canned coffee is some kind of macho American thing.

    I’m definitely going to go to Sunset Super on Irving this afternoon and stock up though, reading this post gave me a huge craving.

  4. Alex says:

    Actually, I’m in America and I have canned coffee all the time. They sell them in the bakery at my college, usually about $2.50 for a 20oz can of coffee. They’re actually pretty good, and the funny thing is that they’re cheaper than actually going to a starbucks, as far as volume is concerned. Of course, I like mine chilled.

  5. Anonymous says:

    There are at least six different bottled / canned coffees available in my region of the US, though not out of vending machines…and as we move towards a cashless society, I’m happy to keep it that way.

  6. notjackobrien says:

    @#7

    Coffee naturally has a very unstable shelf life once it’s brewed. The oils (what make it tasty) oxidize and go away. The tannins (what make it bitter and tart) linger. Milk neutralizes the tannins and sugar bonds to the oils, preventing them from oxidizing.

    Also, David Lynch directed Twin Peaks ads for Georgia Coffee

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rVF0Mq4LJLM

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGJWQlqj0n4&feature=related

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4sBbO3o9zs&feature=related

  7. HeatherB says:

    It’s much more convenient and cheaper for me to make it at home.

  8. meow says:

    the cans didn’t take off in North America is probably because people here customize their coffee too damn much. With 2%, with whole milk, with soy, with skim…and variations there of just for a coffee, then you get the barista to froth it up too. Can a vending machine do that? Or get the drinks company make 25 different kinds of canned coffee? It’s not feasible. And with our instant gratification culture, it’s just easier to get the barista to do it just right and hold up the line then to try a gazillion different cans to find the “right one” – only to have the “right one” be discontinued in two weeks.

  9. AVisitor says:

    Having recently visited Japan for a few weeks, our family fell in love with the hot vending machines. My wife absolutely loved the canned coffee, my son loved getting hot chocolate (and sometimes using it as a hand-warmer as well), and as a avowed coffee snob I thought it was decent. My wife still talks about how much she misses it.

  10. Rick says:

    “(I drink coffee purely for the caffeine.)”

    Just get some pills then.

  11. Mary Sue says:

    I buy these by the case in November for NaNoWriMo from my local Asian food store. The biggest problem for Americans I think is that they typically come in weensy cans. That’s not macho nor manly (says the woman addicted to them).

  12. technogeek says:

    Coffee from a vending machine in Spain was better than most of the coffee I’ve gotten here in the US.

    (You know what happens if you order Cafe’ American, right? They brew coffee properly, then dilute it 50%.)

  13. obo says:

    There’s an “oriental grocery” down the street from a college I used to work at that sold canned Mr. Brown. Had a cartoony white plantation owner who looked like a second-cousin to the KFC Colonel giving a thumbs up. It was a fist-sized can that kicked the shit out of me, thing must’ve been four shots of espresso with just enough milk and chocolate to fill the rest out. Served cold, it was the _best_ coffee experience I ever had, in that it tasted like ass but a single can that was small enough to comfortably down in one gulp kept me juiced for 12 hours.

    I quit it when I tried to down a six-pack and nearly went to the hospital five cans in because my chest was vibrating. Well, actually, I quit it because I moved away and haven’t seen it since. I still have an empty can as a memento – it still smells like coffee eight years later, even though I’ve washed it out a couple dozen times.

  14. Jaime says:

    Used to love coffee in a can until i became lactose intolerant.

    Now its black coffee in a cup (but I’ve since moved to tea).

  15. Marshall says:

    I don’t really drink coffee anymore, but I love this stuff. Local Japanese markets in my area have what seems like hundreds of varieties (yet, I’ve never seen anyone drinking one in public…), and some of them are pretty decent. I’ve had a few brands/flavours that were downright wrong, wrong, wrong, though.

  16. Ian.Furni says:

    I absolutely love coffee in a can! I discovered the coffee vending machines when I was a Marine deployed to Okinawa and subsequently the mainland back in the late 90s and would generally spend about 200 yen a day on the stuff. Forget Starbucks, this is my addiction. Every chance I get, I head to the local Japanese market and try to pick up a can or too.

  17. snej says:

    Coffee in a can would be gross. Coffee needs to be brewed fresh to taste good (and ideally, the beans ground fresh too.)

    On the other hand, Americans have drunk vile instant coffee (and nearly as vile Robusta pisswater like Folger’s) for decades, so I don’t know why they didn’t go for canned coffee too. This is probably more of a marketing thing than a public-taste thing — i.e. no one ever got around to pushing this over here.

    Say what you want about Starbucks, but it’s done more to improve the quality of coffee in the US than anyone else ever has.

  18. meee says:

    check the Youtube videos. many tourists from America or the other countries try japanese canned drinks of vending machines.

  19. Thom_D says:

    I was stationed in Yokosuka Japan in the late 70′s in the Navy. I used to get a can of the UCC coffee with milk and sugar on the way to work in the morning before I got on the train. It was just hot enough that if the train got there before you were done you could just down it and you didn’t burn your hand. I loved that stuff and really missed it when I got back to the states. I never understood why it didn’t take off in the states. We have those really lousy coffee vending machines that make the worst coffee in the world but canned coffee never made it here. And believe me the canned coffee tastes much better than the stuff the machines make. It isn’t as good as starbucks or coffee bean but when you were on the run it was awesome.

  20. Greg Perry says:

    I watched almost two hours of NASCAR tonight.

  21. JImmy MAck says:

    Why is it the Japanese ALWAYS get the cool stuff?

    RT
    http://www.real-anonymity.pro.tc

  22. JIgisha Chawda says:

    ADEX EXHI-CON is organising India International Tea & Coffee Expo 2009 at Bombay Exhibition Centre, Mumbai, India, from 18th to 20th December 2009. IITCE is only exclusive show in India where all leading Tea & coffee comapny will showcase their products.IITCE is a Business to business & Business to Consumer show where all Industry Buyer, Distributor, Wholesaler, Retailer, Hotel, Restaurant, Chain Stores and decission maker will come together to see the latest product and trends influencing the beverage trade. For Further enquiry please feel free to contact Jigisha 9987734619.

  23. dculberson says:

    I love the canned coffee drinks, but they aren’t really good coffee. They’re more of a mild coffee flavored milk and sugar drink.

    I suspect that if they had a strong, black, unsweetened coffee drink in a can it would be completely vile. Pure coffee just isn’t a durable or sturdy drink in the least. Variations in temperature, time from roasting, time from brewing, they all strongly affect the flavor.

  24. Yreka says:

    I absolutely love the UCC coffee. It’s not too sweet, not too bitter, with lots of milk.

    I think part of it would be taste which would not allow it to take off much in the US, but I’m surprised that I can only find it at asian markets (which happily enough, there are a lot of in my area).

  25. Disgrntld says:

    Does heating the coffee in the can cause any problems like metal leaching or busted cans?

  26. swag says:

    @pork musket -

    Err, it didn’t happen just once 22 years ago. This is a cultural thing that’s been going on for decades. It’s like BoingBoing telling us Americans eat these things called “TV dinners”, but there’s not TV inside them.

  27. pork musket says:

    Swag, I’d like to apologize on behalf of the internet for not knowing everything you’ve already seen before and filtering it out. Do you comment on everything you read that you haven’t seen too, or does that not make you feel cool enough?

  28. gnosis says:

    Alas – Starbucks Doubleshot is just not nearly as tasty as Roots.

  29. cybergibbons says:

    I really liked these – here is my coffee diary from a visit to Japan:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/34687351@N00/sets/72157604692016329/

  30. ROOTS AROMA BLACK HOT COFFE, produced by Japan Tobacco company, is simply great!
    The first time I drinked it I couldn’t believe a canned coffee could taste so good. Of course from many vending machines and in the convenience shops is possibile to buy it cold or hot!

  31. Eric says:

    I buy these canned coffees from Japan in bulk at a local Asian market, I love them, better then charredbucks. If I want good coffee I still make it at home or can even being my french press to work. I have devised a way to get a couple can hot at a time, wastes water, just use a large pot and get the water going, add insulator to can, done.

    I have yet to see that one called “Georgia” in the pic though

  32. w000t says:

    I’ve tried several of these and they’re actually pretty good, but all of them I’ve ever seen are sweetened or sweet with milk. I take my coffee unsweetened and black whether it’s hot or cold. Put good black coffee in a can (or bottle) and I’d buy it.

    #6 / cybergibbons:
    The public doesn’t have permission to view that set.

  33. Anonymous says:

    Maybe because Japanese can coffee tastes like ass because it’s made for smokers… (it’s a portable ashtray when finished). The only reason you bought one when you were a kid was because it was cool to smoke (and drink coffee from a can).

    Japanese can coffee tastes like crap.

  34. Anonymous says:

    I remember Georgia brand of deep roasted espresso named ‘Deepresso’

  35. gnosis says:

    Made a post about this. Thanks Lisa!

  36. swag says:

    Errr, this is 22-year-old news.

  37. gobo says:

    American coffee-in-a-can isn’t unheard of.

    P&G/Folgers worked for years to develop a self-heating coffee can; a button at the bottom heats the coffee inside to near-boiling in about 30 seconds. Unfortunately, it’s FOLGERS coffee, so it tastes like poo anyway. Not a hot seller.

    Starbucks, on the other hand, has done bangup business with their canned coffee and Doubleshot canned espresso. Tastes pretty much like a BOSS Coffee.

    And, #3, I’d suggest giving a can of Japanese canned coffee a try before declaring it ‘gross’. It’s been popular for over 30 years; they’ve had awhile to get the flavor right.

  38. pork musket says:

    If we had these here in the states, they’d never take off. How is everyone else supposed to know how important you are if you can’t talk on your bluetooth earpiece while ordering a skinny double vanilla mochaccino with whipped cream while at the drive-through Starbucks window in your Porsche Cayenne?

  39. pork musket says:

    @Swag – I appreciate the re-post as I was a toddler the first time around. I’ll get off your lawn now.

  40. grimc says:

    @#4

    Actually, I think UCC is really sweet, like coffee with triple cream and triple sugar.

    Not that i’m complaining. I’ve been addicted to the stuff since I was a kid.

  41. Snarp says:

    There’s a variant of that American Coffee can design that’s even better, because there’s a woman on the hood of that careening driverless car. This is Japan’s image of the US – women with plunging necklines who sit on cars, and then explode.

    @#18 I suspect that if they had a strong, black, unsweetened coffee drink in a can it would be completely vile.

    Unsweetened black coffee is actually available from several companies – the third can from the left up there (the Roots one) is one such. As Japanese canned stuff is the only coffee I ever drink, I have no idea whether it’s any good. (I drink coffee purely for the caffeine.)

  42. Yreka says:

    @10
    I agree, though, then again, I also like Thai coffee which is espresso + condensed milk. Sweet’s just fine by me.

  43. Nelson.C says:

    When I was in Japan a couple of years ago and I saw these machines, I wondered whether the coffee was hot or cold, but as I don’t like coffee and the weather was damned hot for this cool-blooded Englishman I never bought one (I stayed with the Pocari Sweat and other isotonic drinks).

    Now I’m wondering how they heat the cans. Do the machines keep the whole stock permanently hot? Just a certain number? Or is there a gadget in the can to heat the coffee?

    Downpressor @22: Only since 1992.

  44. Brother Provisional says:

    I’m a little scared of the can of “America Coffee” (second to the left).

  45. asahi says:

    i prefer the osake hanbaiki (alcohol vending machine)… u can find it everywhere when u most need it.. heheh

  46. atskv9 says:

    No one’s repping Georgia Cafe au Lait!? Best one I had in Japan.

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