“Coffee should be as black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love”- Charles Maurice de Talleyrand.
And that’s exactly how I take mine. Coffee and I have had their ups and down, I briefly abandoned my caffeinated companion following my dissertation induced sleep deprivation, in the final year of my degree. It would be more accurate to describe this period as a brief sulk with all of coffee-dom. It had failed to keep me wide awake for 4 continuous days prior to my dissertation hand in, and thus thoroughly disappointed me by not achieving the ambitious goal I set it. However once I had slept and recovered from end of degree stress I resumed an amicable (ok deep set love) relationship with one of my favoured hot beverages and learnt not to abuse it so much…you know of the heart palpitating kind. Also lessons learnt from living on my own in Bordeaux, France for a year, and running a whole machine of coffee in the morning (partly in enthusiasm for having my own coffee machine) before proceeding to drink it all throughout the morning and sending insane emails to my friends induced by the caffeinated shakes, taught me to drink in moderation. I could expend a whole blog post on my relationship with coffee but I would prefer to take you on a little journey and glimpse into the coffee market in Japan.
Tea for two, and two for… a double shot espresso please
In terms of hot beverages, green tea and tea ceremonies are considered synonymous with the Japanese culture, more so than the oft-considered European beverage of choice, coffee. However Japan is the third largest importer of coffee worldwide, to the increasing detriment of their tea sales. On the consumer landscape nowhere is this more obvious than in the proliferation of coffee shops: Doutour, Starbucks and Starbucks inspired copies: Tully’s and Italian chain Excelsior. Starbucks has been particularly popular with a staggering 217 chains in Tokyo alone. Indeed Japan is the biggest market outside of North America for Starbucks, who established the first branch in 1996, in the Ginza district of Tokyo. Although Starbucks is often cast as one of the big daddy’s of multinational corporations, an evil, all encompassing, invasive capitalist force, you cannot knock ’em for their efforts in introducing Fairtrade coffee, and one of the best examples of waste recycling I saw. But then again that may be the local influences of Japanese legislation and culture towards recycling, rather than initiative taken by the chain itself. Furthermore the increasing interest in speciality coffee in Japan has been attributed to Starbuck’s arrival. Speciality coffee is of particular interest to coffee growers since it is a much more lucrative market in an industry which traditionally suffers from low commodity prices; growers can command a much higher price for the Arabica beans used for this type of coffee.
Unfortunately instant coffee sales still reign, and calling that stuff ‘coffee’ is somewhat a stretch of the imagination…powdered, reconstituted watery mud which once resembled a coffee bean in days of yore is how I perceive it, much like ‘Dairylea’ is ‘cheese’. And I don’t expect Starbuck’s aggressive marketing of their new ‘instant coffee’ VIA® is doing much to buck this trend either. However the fresh coffee market is a growing one, by Japanese wishing to emulate that café experience at home. Although Nestlé is king of instant coffee, 4 main Japanese brands exist; the most established being UCC who source their famous Blue Mountain coffee from Jamaica. Blue Mountain denoting the region in which the coffee is grown and is noted for its high quality, mild flavour and expensive price, of which over 80% is imported to Japan.
Interestingly fresh coffee appears to be a phenomenon among young women, and Japanese males are more likely to choose RTD’s (Ready To Drink) coffees, espressos or lattes such as instant, pre-prepared in bottles or cans. Don’t want to comment on gender differences here…but I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions… 🙂
The canned revolution
So far, nothing remarkable about coffee in Japan, right? Think again, Japan is the home and founder of canned coffee. Weird, wacky Japan strikes again. Yup coffee in a can, found on supermarket shelves or in a vending machine along with all the usual sodas, water and soft drinks you would come to expect. And what’s more it comes hot and cold, introduced into vending machines by Pokka Coffee in 1973. However canned coffee made its first, albeit brief, appearance in 1965 as Mira coffee and have since expanded in terms of brands, design and coffee type: black, café au lait/ milk coffee, flavoured coffee and most bizarrely coffee jelly. And according to sources, that really is as disgusting as that sounds, especially when you’ve misread the label and are expecting a liquid hot coffee.
And how does canned coffee taste, I hear you ask? Well of the 3 I sampled, definitely not Barista standard, and some lingering nuances of metal. There also seemed to be a significant absence of organic, or Fairtrade standard coffees, although my research has yielded evidence of some Fairtrade canned coffees, from the cooperative Agricultural Fedekokagua, however I cannot guarantee that this is the correct name of the organisation. Yet again my lack of Japanese linguistic skills stumps me.
Blue Mountain coffee is an interesting case, unlike its poorer counterparts; this coffee has established a reputation for high quality and thus has a high demand which has pushed its prices up to 10 times more than your average coffee. Its fortunate location, climate, strong marketing thanks to Japanese company UCC and consistent attention to quality have all contributed to Blue Mountain’s advantageous market position. Indeed the strong tie with the Japan is what guarantees its market endurance and good prices. When Hurricane Gilbert struck Jamaica in 1988 much of the island was left devastated, with much of their crops destroyed. However Japan responded by helping the growers as much as possible, and in the meantime prices soared in Japan. A gesture which was not forgotten in Jamaica, and thus explains the monopoly which the Japanese have on this high quality coffee.
Fair or unfair trade coffee?
In Japan, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts (here and here) Fairtrade is generally low on the radar. Coffee is no exception and did not appear in a Fairtrade form until 2002 in Japan, again thanks to a Starbuck’s initiative.
Yet Fairtrade is a contentious issue, and more so with coffee than other Fairtrade products. Coffee is the commodity where I have seen the greatest discussion and doubt cast over the actual benefits of it being Fairtrade. The basic premise of Fairtrade is to guarantee coffee growers minimum prices, above market price, as well as additional benefits such as development of educational, health and community resources. For their part growers must implement crop management, environmentally friendly practices, belong to cooperatives and not use child labour. However it is argued that by guaranteeing minimum prices this would only encourage greater production, on an already saturated market, and thus cause greater oversupply and weakening of market prices. It is for this reason that Japan initially rejected the idea of Fairtrade. Others argue that by creating a two-tier market this enables farmers to sell their lower quality beans to Fairtrade where they are guaranteed a minimum price, and sell their higher quality beans to the open market which is solely determined by quality. In other cases, some farmers may seek to improve the quality of their produce, however since they sell to cooperatives; their beans are mixed with other farmer’s produce which may be of lower quality, so this does little to encourage individual improvement. There are a lot more discussions and complexities related to Fairtrade and I only seek to give you a brief overview here. There are Fairtrade companies who ensure high quality of their coffee beans, and indeed some of the best coffees I have tried have been of the ethical variety, and it is for this reason alone that the Japanese began to engage with the Fairtrade market. They recognised the coffee beans are also of quality and are thus worth the premium paid for them.
I leave it to you to draw your own conclusions, but urge you all to do further research. I admit I have difficulties coming to solid conclusions, and this mixed with the fact I generally prefer the taste of coffee grown in Africa somewhat influences my choice. However in my eyes, Fairtrade is a short term solution to a current worldwide problem of agricultural tariff barriers set by many Western governments. If subsidies were stopped and the markets were to set the price of commodities, then there would technically be no need for Fairtrade, since prices would increase. However if unfair trade rules continue to exist, then a need for fairer trade is necessary to help those in the most vulnerable positions.
There is also some awareness of Rainforest Alliance labelled coffee in Japan and its sales currently outstrip those of Fairtrade, but market share still remains small. Counterparts such as ‘Bird Friendly’ are also fairly minority; however they were a label I stumbled upon several times during my foray into coffee products in Japan. The Rainforest Alliance fits in well with Japanese demands for safe and high quality foods through its focus upon social and environmental issues and therefore is a label which has potential to do well. However I was pleased to see the range of organic coffee available in Japanese stores, and can wholeheartedly conclude it was the best tasting coffee I brewed in Japan. But be warned the brands I chose are of a strong character: they sent me and my boyfriend into a coffee spin; we spent a good hour in Asakusa one morning with symptoms of dizziness, light headedness, palpitations and a caffeine fog. We reduced the dose the next day.
- Fairtrade Label Japan-New canned coffee
- Japanese Coffee Market
- Jamaican Coffee is King in Japan
- Jamaica’s Coffee Makes Japan a Jealous Lover
- Japan wakes up to Fair Trade Coffee
- Canned liquid coffee
- The Japanese Market for Environmentally and Socially Certified Agricultural Products from Central America
- Monocle magazine, Issue 35, Vol. 4, July/August 2010.