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The Supreme Bean: How Konbini Coffee Conquered Japan

Japan drinks a lot of coffee. You may think it’s a tea-drinking country, but coffee consumption is off the charts. In 2021, Japan consumed 433 million tons of coffee and “only” 100 thousand tons of tea! Japan is the third largest coffee market in the world after the United States and Germany. This includes kissaten (traditional coffee houses), popular chains, canned coffee and, of course, convenience stores.

In the last 10 years, konbini (as they’re known in Japan) have become a real player in the coffee market. As they’ve raised the quality of their beans and expanded drink options, they’ve given more established coffee sectors a run for their money—and helped increase coffee consumption overall.

So how did konbini coffee get so good? The story starts more than 300 years ago.

Cool Beans: Japan’s Coffee History

Photo: iStock/ ColobusYetiIn Japan, a can of coffee is never too far away.

Coffee first arrived on Japanese shores in 1700, but it wasn’t until kissaten, or Japanese coffee houses, began to appear during the Meiji era (1868-1912) that a coffee culture would start to develop. Things really picked up steam when the first coffee company of note, Ueshima Tadao Shoten, was founded in Kobe in 1933. Recovering from a ban on coffee during World War 2, it restructured into Ueshima Coffee Company, or UCC, in 1951.

Coffee consumption really took off in the 1960s and 1970s, thanks in no small part to the invention of canned coffee. In 1969, UCC debuted the world’s first canned coffee, UCC Coffee With Milk, kicking off a canned coffee boom. Suddenly, coffee drinkers could get their caffeine fix on the go—and, thanks to the many drink vending machines appearing around the country, they didn’t even have to go to the store to buy one.

Japan’s love for coffee grew even bolder in the 1980s when flush with cash from the Bubble Era; coffee lovers began flocking to not only local kissa (slang for coffee shops in Japan) but also coffee franchises. Japan’s homegrown coffee chain, Doutor, opened its first store in Harajuku in 1980. Starbucks followed suit in Ginza in 1996.

Convenience Stores Up Their Game

Photo: iStock/ bee32Getting a coffee at the konbini is, well, convenient.

With coffee consumption increasing in the 1980s, Japanese convenience stores began installing countertop coffee machines. However, the beans on offer were by no means premium, and it had little impact on overall coffee drink sales. It was just another place to get a mediocre cup of coffee.

Then, in 2008, something happened that would have a lasting effect on konbini coffee. It wasn’t even a convenience-store-created innovation, though. McDonald’s Japan, of all places, debuted a good-tasting ¥100 cup of coffee, and suddenly customers were stopping by the Golden Arches specifically for a cup of Joe. The major convenience store chains took notice and began upping their bean quality significantly.

All of the major chains—7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson—have since made moves to offer low-priced cups of coffee with an eye to challenging chain cafes. It has been a success by all accounts, with canned coffee sales falling and overall coffee consumption rising since the early 2010s.

Lawson: The Trailblazer

Lawson is Japan’s third largest konbini chain. It kick-started the convenience store coffee boom in 2011 when it introduced Machi Cafe. Ditching the coffee machine, Lawson asked customers to order at the counter, like at a coffee specialty store. While initially popular, the chain soon realized that customers place a premium on speed. Lawson is now moving back towards the machine model, in line with the other major convenience stores. The coffee here is brewed with an espresso machine from the Italian company Carimali.

As for its coffee, Lawson has collaborated with Sarutahiko Coffee and uses a blend of Rainforest Alliance-certified beans. To improve flavor, Lawson recently updated the roasting method for its coffee drinks, “blending beans roasted in two different roasting machines to brew coffee with a more intense flavor and aroma that are immediately noticeable in the mouth,” according to a 2022 article in The Japan News.

Family Mart: Holding The Line

With more than 16,000 stores across the country, Family Mart is Japan’s second-largest konbini chain. Its Famima Cafe line of coffee drinks has been consistently popular since its introduction in 2012. In 2020, Family Mart improved their blend in collaboration with Tetsu Kasuya, winner of the 2016 World Brewers Cup. The coffee is an easy-to-drink brew with a good balance of acidity and bitterness and an exquisite aroma.

It uses a mix of Brazilian, Columbian and Ethiopian beans with filtered or distilled water to improve flavor. It has recently upped the percentage of Brazilian beans in its blend and added more roasting time to temper the bitterness.

Along with the usual hot and cold drip coffees, it offers frappes and a number of frozen dessert-type drinks.

Coffee price: ¥110 – ¥210

7-Eleven: Head Of The Class

7-Eleven is, by far, Japan’s largest convenience store chain. Topping out at over 21,000 locations, Japan has more 7-Eleven stores than any other country on Earth. Its coffee is also the most popular of Japan’s convenience store chains, even winning NTT Docomo’s Minna no Koe (everyone’s voice) convenience-store coffee survey in 2019.

7-Eleven uses an all-Arabica blend of beans in its Seven Cafe hot and iced coffee and lattes. It also employs husking, a process that removes the bitter skin layer of the beans—something that not even specialty stores do.

Being that it’s a convenient store, 7-Eleven also invested in refining the speediness of its machines, resulting in a finished cup of coffee now six seconds faster than before. You can bet that Lawson was paying attention to this.

7-Eleven was also the first to offer a cup of coffee for ¥100. This launched a price war between the three major brands, with Lawson and Family Mart soon following suit. Now, thanks to inflation, the price has risen to ¥110 across the board, which is still a pretty good deal for a cup of coffee.

Coffee price: ¥110 – ¥300

What’s your go-to convenience store when you need your coffee fix? Tell us in the comments!

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