Japanese can coffee: Hot coffee from a vending machine

In Japan, coffee comes in a can. Of course, you can get it in a paper cup or porcelain mug with a little saucer under it. But when you’re on the go and you’ve got just five minutes of coffee-sipping time on the train platform, can coffee is there for you.

Can coffee
Photo by michael_8

The really cool thing about kan kohi (缶コーヒー – canned coffee) is that the vending machines sell it both hot and cold, sometimes in the same vending machine! This is miraculous for someone who comes from a country where getting a drink from a vending machine is a little like playing the slots in Vegas. You hit the button and hope for a jackpot (your drink).

Can coffee was pioneered by the Ueshima Coffee Company (UCC) in the 1960s. At that time, you could only buy drinks in glass bottles that needed to be returned to the store when you were finished. If you wanted a bottle of milk while you were waiting for the train (milk was the hottest-seller at the time), you had to basically chug it and return the bottle before your train came. The founder of UCC felt this was horribly inconvenient. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could enjoy a fresh-brewed cup of Joe anytime anywhere? Thus, can coffee was born.

It was a few years later when the company Pokka developed the first hot drink vending machines that can coffee began to really catch on. The vending machines today have little bars of red or blue underneath the drinks telling you whether it’s hot or cold. Both UCC and Pokka are still sold today.

Some of the other brands you see everywhere are:

Boss Can Coffee
Boss—This one goes for a sophisticated image. Its logo is a picture of Tom Selleck smoking a pipe. One of my favorite product names is ‘Silky Black Boss.’ Over the last few years, Tommy Lee Jones has appeared in Boss advertisements.
Kilimanjaro Can Coffee Kilimanjaro comes in a barrel-shaped can.
American coffee
American Coffee—I have no idea what’s ‘American’ about it other than the name.
Roots—Roots had an ad a few years ago with Brad Pitt.
Georgia—Famous for its Emerald Mountain Blend, Georgia is owned by Coke and named after the company’s home state.
Morning Shot
Morning Shot—I’ve always loved the idea of having your ‘morning shot.’
Fire—Definitely one of the manliest of can coffees.
Max Coffee—This one comes in an extra tall can and it’s a local Chiba brand.

There are lots more, and Starbucks and Tulley’s also have their own can coffees on the market.

I couldn’t get into can coffee when I first moved to Japan, but when I realized what a convenient way it was to get a caffeine fix, I became hooked. In years of drinking can coffee, I have to say that most taste pretty much the same to me—sweet and milky.

There are some can coffees that are black and bitter, and others that have only light sugar, but the majority are sweet and the milk overpowers the coffee taste. There are also mochas, lattes, cappuccinos, and other specialty drinks. Can coffee makers actually use very high quality beans.

My favorite was a limited time coffee called Deeppresso, not so much for the taste but for the name. It brings on a melancholic state when you drink it and then you can write poetry better. Just kidding! It comes from mashing together ‘deep’ and ‘espresso,’ or so I think anyway.

Some brands of can coffee are marketed as being manly. Ads have famous actors like Tommy Lee Jones, corporate guys in suits, or construction workers taking a much needed break from their hard day of work to sip sweet coffee and enjoy a moment of quiet contemplation.


Developing a taste for can coffee is one of the signs that you’ve been in Japan too long. I’ve also heard several Japanese friends say that when they return to Japan from traveling overseas, the first thing they do at Narita Airport is slurp down a can coffee. The taste of home!

Has anyone else developed a taste for can coffee? No? Okay…it’s just me then. Please comment and tell me that I’ve gone over to the Dark Side.

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Originally from the States, +Greg Scott has gone native in Chiba, Japan, where he lives with his wife and two children. When not writing, he plays drums like a meth-crazed gorilla in several Tōkyō bands.

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