It is often said that a cup of coffee gets the world off to work in the morning. Nowhere is this statement more accurate than in the work intensive, 24 hour society that is Japan. Pretty much every survey conducted consistently shows that Japanese people work longer hours and take fewer vacations than most other countries around the world.
Hence the Japanese love of coffee is fueled not only by the deep aroma and fine taste of a good blend, but also the need for immediate and sustained hits of caffeine throughout their 12-14 hour work day.
As a result coffee is big business in Japan, so much so that even Hollywood acting heavyweights like Tommy Lee Jones have been drafted in to help one particular brand ascend to supremacy. Coffee shops like Starbucks, Tully’s and Excelsior can be found all around Japan, with domestic competitors like Doutor and UCC Coffee also enjoying booming business.
However, whilst I am no stranger to Starbucks (whoever the genius is that invented the delicious delight that is the Matcha Latte deserves the Japanese equivalent of a knighthood!), I have to say that the vast majority of my Japanese coffee experience comes not from boutique shops or stylish cafes, but from convenience stores and the seemingly endless supply of vending machines that can be found in even the most obscure countryside locations throughout Japan.
So today we will focus on these cheap, cheerful and freely available drinks, as I give you my top 10 rundown on the best of Japanese “Konbini Coffee”.
10) Boss Black
Photo: Cognoscenti* on Flickr
As short and simple as the title. This is a coffee that “does exactly what it says on the tin,” so to speak. These small cans are available in convenience stores and vending machines everywhere in Japan for as little as 100 yen.
Its straight, black, and best served chilled. It has an undeniable kick guaranteed to wake even the sleepiest salaryman from his midday malaise.
The stern look of Tommy Lee Jones on the can says it all. Whilst not perhaps the most palatable coffee on this list, it is probably one of the most potent. If you like your coffee simple, direct and to the point, this one is for you.
9) Georgia Emerald Mountain Blend
Photo: Shinichi Higashi on Flickr
The exterior design of these diminutive little cans of coffee, with their wide mountain landscape, and thick English font conveys images of a fresh American blend straight from the Rocky Mountains. I’m afraid you’ll be a bit disappointed if that’s what you expect to find here. But then again, did you really expect that level of sophistication for 120 yen per can?
Emerald Mountain is available in both black and café au lait varieties. I tend to prefer the café au lait, but the black is also not without its attributes. A bit less of a wake-up call than Boss Black, but also a bit easier on the tastebuds too.
8) Boss Café Au Lait
Photo: Jackson Boyle on Flickr
Yes, Tommy Lee Jones and company are at it again at number 8 with this sweet, flavourful little blend. These cans are a particular favourite of mine, especially as a precursor to those long, busy train rides to work in the morning.
However, coffee purists may decry the extremely high sugar content, which it could be argued kills off a lot of the coffee aroma. Nonetheless, as a quick and easily drinkable early morning pick-me up, as well as a nice, chilled refreshment on a hot day, Boss Café Au Lait is definitely up there with the best of them.
7) Mount Rainier Non-sugar Caffe Latte
The Mount Rainier brand is popular in convenience stores across Japan, though judging by the design of their packaging it’s surely only a matter of time before Starbuck’s copyright and trademark lawyers come calling!
At the very least, it could be said that Mount Rainier pays homage to the Seattle giant in their cup design, and the coffee is no different, providing a very capable facsimile of the far more expensive Starbucks roast.
The non-sugar variety is my personal favourite as it forgoes most of the sickly sweetness that I always found to be the main detractor in Starbucks coffee.
6) Kirin Fire
Photo: Christian Kadluba on Flickr
Ok, the name is probably a bit melodramatic, but there’s definitely something to be said for this sharp, black blend. It has the power to definitely light the proverbial fire under you on a lazy day.
It is also a pretty useful hangover curer, and will definitely get you through the day if you’ve had one too many at the izakaya the night before. However, if you are expecting a sweet taste and easily drinkable cuppa then this is not for you. This rocket fuel is designed with one purpose only, and it isn’t an enjoyable taste.
5) Starbucks Kyoto Matcha Latte
Photo: toyohara on Flickr
Ok, I know I’m probably cheating a little here as this is supposed to be an article about coffee. But given the caffeine content of this delightful little drink it definitely makes a strong case for entry, and that’s why it made my top 5.
This is currently a Japan only drink, but I sincerely hope Starbucks will consider rolling this out worldwide in the near future. It’s all the fresh aroma, lightly bitter aftertaste, and warming comfort of a Japanese tea ceremony compressed into a handy, cup-sized form. It has to be experienced to be believed.
4) 7-11 Non-sweet Café Latte
Photo: Celine L. on Flickr
It’s not often that convenience stores’ own brand drinks will make it this high up a top ten list, but 7-11’s non-sweet café latte has earned its place with distinction.
During the early stages of my diet, when my caffeine and coffee cravings were off the scale, this little cup saved me on many occasions.
At only 131 calories per cup, it’s a lot healthier than most café lattes out there, and its fuller flavour, with less sweetness, certainly helped when I was making my transition over to black coffee.
3) Wonda Espresso
Photo: David Pursehouse on Flickr
When we go for an espresso, we are all looking for that short, sharp jolt to the system to kick start our working day. Wonda Espresso delivers this in abundance. Its rich flavour belies its power. And it tastes pretty good too. At only 120 yen per can from the vending machine it’s also easy on your wallet.
2) UCC Café Mocha
For all we like to be health conscious and monitor our caloric intake, there are times when you just need to be good to yourself. For those times, we have Café Mocha and nobody does it better than UCC.
Whilst it doesn’t quite hit the highs of their in-store café mocha, there is a lot to be said for this little can of happiness. Just don’t bother looking at the sugar content or the calorie levels. That’s not what it was designed for!
1) Maxim Triplesso
A coffee that has so much espresso in it, they had to invent a new word to cater for it. As the name suggests, Triplesso has 3 different types of espresso in it, along will all the milk and sugar you need to energize your sleepy self.
Not the healthiest, but undeniably the most tasty and effective coffee on this list, it gets my vote every time.
Of course the beauty of writing lists like this, is that no doubt later today, after this article has been submitted I will remember one or two great coffees that I didn’t put on the list.
In these days of designer coffees to match out designer clothes, it can be all too easy to turn our noses up at these so-called “lesser varieties”. I would urge you not to do so.
Thanks to the abundance of vending machines and convenience stores in Japan, a good old “cup of joe” has never been closer.