West Eats East
Coffee in a Can
“Beer in a can” Navy sailors laughed at. It was told by one of my dear in-laws in his experience when he was hauling living supplies by a standardized supply cargo ship to military locations in the Pacific. Don’t you remember a movie Mr. Roberts directed by John Ford, with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Jack Lemon showing a typical cargo ship during wartime? Anyway, beer had been always in a glass bottle. Canned beer was delivered much easier without worrying about breakages or heavy weight loads to the locations where our soldiers and officers were. That laughing matter about 70+ years later has become just the routine today.
“Coffee in a can,” another laugh, this time, by home office executives of the number one global soft drink business in Atlanta, GA. Coffee had been always brewed fresh and occasionally carried in pots. Coffee should be brewed fresh, that has been a must. Coffee in Japan, though, was a different matter and still is somewhat today. Green tea is a routine drink at breakfast and coffee has been an exotic, fancy, a little bit snobbish, western, imported matter. It was served only at western-style hotel restaurants or coffee shops. Coffee has been with extra charges for extra pleasure among ordinary citizens. Then coffee became popular in iron cans. Despite of the laugh at the home office, the local Japanese branch management pushed hard through and launched its own version in Japan during the late 70s. Their canned coffee became one of the major brands there. No laughing matter for the home office people any more. Whenever I visited to Japan, I asked for freshly brewed coffee at a train station kiosk or convenience store. Coffee never existed at these easy stop-by locations. I was always encountered with a reply that we served canned coffee. “Coffee in a can,” crazy isn’t it? All kinds of coffee, either with milk and/or sugar, American, and cold or hot, are available in cans at a counter or through a vending machine. I suspect canned coffee was developed firstly for selling through vending machines. That was an innovation by the Japanese. Crazy or innovative?
Canned coffee is still being sold at convenience stores, which are located almost every corner in urban areas, and vending machines all over the place there. As canned coffee and other soda drinks became routine in drinking in the place of plain water, two issues emerged: the over-intake of sugar and litter of empty cans. Particularly with empty coffee cans, truck drivers were blamed as culprits for littering them while driving; this was found at roadside litter surveys. Canned coffee is in an iron can but not in an aluminum can, and both are not subjected to picking up cans for deposit cash in Japan. The reason for an iron can is its heat resistant nature in selling hot.
Then chain coffee stands or small shops came to compete with canned coffee at convenience stores or through vending machines. Soon American fast food chains, McDonald’s and now Burger King and even Taco Bell, started selling good, real coffee at an inexpensive price. The former is my coffee place in Japan for quicker service in a quiet, clean environment. After that, here comes the Starbucks. It expands rapidly into many areas, and serves good freshly brewed coffee and at the same time becomes a symbol of a real civilization. Without the Starbucks, people suffer from uncivilized living, almost, which is similarly said here. Meanwhile the Starbucks has not driven canned coffee out of market and canned coffee is still likely a major player of coffee in Japan.
Some Japanese canned coffee manufacturers tried to come to this side of the Pacific for two reasons: exploring the canned coffee market here and contract manufacturing canned coffee for export to Japan. Both objectives un-seemingly took off. Probably as a reminiscent of the business trial, the Starbucks came up with a packed coffee in a bottle but not in a can, I suspect. It did not go with cans because of trying to give an impression of copying the Japanese ones. I have seen milk coffee in a 180ml milk bottle which was sold at train station kiosk stores all over. It was good, sweet and cold on early summer mornings while waiting for a jammed, commuting train, a long time ago. Now Japan has options of coffee, either in canned, local coffee stands-houses, fast food places or at the American coffee giant. In my last trip, I saw convenience stores had started selling brewed coffee. A cup of freshly brewed coffee with lightly roasted beans, is my choice, but not in a can. The latest discovery: espresso and other coffee products in aluminum cans by the Starbucks in my neighborhood supermarket. A new era of coffee in can?