The rise and rise of Japan’s sparkling coffee craze
The country’s ready-to-drink coffee sector is taking on the US – and a vital part of this growth is the rise of canned sparkling coffees. Matt Haw speaks with Light Up Coffee’s CEO, Yuma Kawano, to find out more.
Japan is a seedbed of coffee innovation.
Blue Bottle founder, James Freeman, was famously inspired by the nation’s deep-rooted kissaten culture, while brands such as %Arabica have influenced the minimalist coffee shop aesthetic that is now so ubiquitous around the world.
The latest trend to grip Japan and power its popularity in other markets, however, is sparkling coffee – also known as “espresso tonic”. The soda-like drink, which typically combines tonic with espresso poured over ice, is thought to have been invented more than a century ago, although its exact origins are difficult to pinpoint.
Some claim it was invented in southern Italy by long-running Italian coffee soda brands such as Basilena and Stappi. However, others point to the US, in particular The Manhattan Special, which has sold its bottled “pure espresso coffee soda” since 1895.
However, in Japan, espresso tonic only started becoming a hit when it was taken up by specialty coffee shops around 2015. Since then, it has exploded in popularity as a cool, bubblier alternative to iced coffee.
Yuma Kawano is the CEO of Tokyo-based coffee brand Light Up Coffee, one of the pioneers of sparkling coffee in Japan. He believes that its popularity explosion is in a large part driven by its climate.
Specifically, summers in Tokyo are ferocious, and from July to September sales of hot coffee measurably decrease. “People really want to drink cooling, sparkling refreshing drinks in the summer season,” Yuma explains.
From East Africa with love
In its simplest form, sparkling coffee is simply coffee – usually espresso – mixed with tonic or soda water.
While it can be easily made at home or in a café, a number of companies specialise in serving it in pre-made ready-to-drink (RTD) cans.
Unlike iced coffee, it invariably has a dark brown aesthetic similar to Coca-Cola as it doesn’t include milk. This is because the idea of sparkling coffee is to complement the bright, citrusy flavours of the sparkling drink with the floral notes of coffee.
In this sense, Yuma says the best coffees to use are typically those from East Africa that have undergone washed processing, rather than the distinctive, fruit-forward notes of natural processing.
Yet his company has also been at the forefront of experimenting with a range of other ingredients. For example, after serving espresso tonics for a number of years, Yuma and his team were inspired by the “craft cola” movement to create a sparkling coffee drink.
In the company’s small lab, the team created around 20 to 30 samples of their coffee cola, taste testing as they went to find the best results.
“Usually, cola is made using the cola nut,” Yuma explains. “But cola nuts are very expensive as an ingredient, so we used ground coffee to replace that and mixed it with many spices such as cardamom, nutmeg, and cinnamon, as well as Japanese citrus.
Light Up Coffee successfully launched its coffee cola during the summer of 2020 as both a seasonal menu item and a bottled syrup for people to mix with sparkling water at home.
The pandemic and the ongoing shift towards online sales meant it was virtually an overnight success. Noticing the growing trend, other Japanese specialty coffee brands shortly followed suit, launching sparkling coffees as both menu items and RTD products.
For example, Blue Bottle Japan launched a coffee gin and tonic kit and Maruyama teamed up with craft cola company Iyoshi to produce its own “coffee cola”.
A canned coffee craze
Sparkling coffee has become a staple among Japanese consumers. However, its popularity is also reflective of a wider country trend concerning RTD coffee, from lattes and nitro cold brew to alcoholic coffee seltzer.
“Japan loves its canned coffee,” writes Optimasi, a Japanese coffee industry expert. “People enjoy the convenience it provides and you can often find it in vending machines.
“The Japanese take their time very seriously: their trains arrive on time and it is morally bad to be late. You can save a lot of time by purchasing a can of coffee from a nearby vending machine. This guarantees that you won’t be running late because you were making coffee.”
Indeed, in 2020, the Japanese RTD market was valued at more than $6 billion and growing. And earlier this year, it was announced that Japan was challenging the US to become the largest RTD market by volume in the world.
A crucial part of this growth is sparkling coffee. And Yuma believes as it continues to attract more and more customers, it opens up further opportunities for other segments of the market.
“Tapping into this market and providing an accessible entrance into specialty coffee is really good for marketing,” he says. “Sparkling coffees provide customers with a novel way into specialty coffee and the opportunity to level up their curiosity.”
As such, he explains that Light Up Coffee has no plans to slow product development down anytime soon.
“Last year we made our own tonic water for our espresso tonics,” he says. ”This year, we made a sudachi (a Japanese citrus fruit similar to lime) espresso soda.”
Now that coffee shop culture is recovering post-pandemic, people will increasingly be exposed to sparkling coffee. And, with the RTD market spearheading overall coffee consumption growth – and with specialty coffee brands focusing on flavour and innovation – Japan’s obsession with sparkling coffee looks set to continue for the foreseeable future.
“Our customers are always curious to taste our sparkling coffees,” Yuma says. “And for those who are sceptical, try to remind them that coffee is a fruit and that good, speciality coffee has a great citrus-like acidity, which works well in sparkling drinks.”