Canned Coffee Carnival – Japanese Coffees, Part 2

As it turns out, New York City’s collection of Asian supermarkets offers a staggering range of coffee based drinks. Upon visiting another store nearby, I found an absolute menagerie of other Japanese canned drinkable caffeine products. After wrapping up a first bout of observations about ready-to-drink coffees, I decided to waste no time in jumping right back into laying down some not-particularly-objective opinions about these products.

Pokka Milk Coffee Drink (Blue Can)

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“Real brewed from Coffee Beans!”
  • Cost: $1.39 for 240mL (0.58¢/mL)
  • Sugar Content: 16g (66.7mg/mL, or 3.94 teaspoons per 8oz.)
  • Ingredients: Water, Milk, Coffee Beans, Sorbitan Monostearate, Sucrose Ester of Fatty Acids, Artificial Flavoring.

The oddly ever-present “Coffee Drink” moniker gracing all of the Pokka coffee products cast an oddly suspicious pall over my tasting of this beverage. It’s like finding something called an “orange-like juice” – right off the bat, you wind up asking yourself some uncomfortable questions about what you’re about to put into your face.

While the sweetness and milkiness of this drink offer a similar general experience to the UCC Milk Coffee (once again, my baseline for canned coffee drinks), it’s clear that this product is not really on the same level when it comes to fine-tuning its flavor profile.  The drink tastes unbalanced, like a radio that’s been set to a slightly incorrect frequency. The coffee itself is barely present here, with its qualities adjusted artificially through the usage of flavorings and additives – I don’t really have any problem with that in principle, but here the modulation only detracts from the drink rather than adding to it. I detect a bit of tartness in this coffee, which goes back and forth between a vaguely cherry-like note and clashing with the milk such that it tastes like it’s gone off a little bit. If possible, I’d probably stick with another drink.

Pokka Milk Coffee Drink (White Can)

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  • Cost: $1.39 for 240mL (0.58¢/mL)
  • Sugar Content: 16g (66.7mg/mL, or 3.94 teaspoons per 8oz.)
  • Ingredients: Water, Freshly Brewed Coffee, Milk, Sucrose, Sabilizer (E473), Flavoring.

Strangely enough, the store that carried another Pokka Milk Coffee Drink right next to the first one, with a nearly identical moniker but entirely different can. Flavorwise, I can’t find any discernible difference between these two profiles – again, very sugary and milky, with a nearly undetectable coffee flavor that bounces between tart and slightly spoiled. Unlike the blue can above, I drank this can ice-cold as opposed to from the refrigerator – it’s clear that the contents are pretty much the same between the two, though this time around I tasted even less of the coffee and even more of the sugar. Still no bueno.

Looking a little more into the bizarre branding on this (and similar) products), it turns out that the man performing the Mentos-commercial-style smile on the can doesn’t actually have a clear identity or origin. However, in Japan and Singapore, this face has become so synonymous with the Pokka brand, that it’s kept on labeling for the sheer recognition factor. (Some people even call it Face Coffee. Who knew?) Just goes to show the power of marketing, I suppose – I kind of wish this stuff wold deliver a little bit more with respect to the actual product, though.

Pokka Cappuccino Coffee Drink

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  • Cost: $1.39 for 240mL (0.58¢/mL)
  • Sugar Content: 18g (75mg/mL, or 4.43 teaspoons per 8oz.)
  • Ingredients: Water, Coffee Beans, Milk, Sugar, Sucrose Esters of Fatty Acids, Sorbitan Monostearate, Artificial Flavoring.

This can’s Italian flag motif implies a somewhat different experience from the previous two drinks, though its high sugar content combined with nearly nonexistent coffee flavors make it little hard for me to classify this drink as a cappuccino. There is a very strong cinnamon flavor profile here – I do think it adds quite a bit to the experience in a positive way, but the overall experience is still very unbalanced. It’s absolutely dominated by sweetness, like I’m drinking a Cinnabon that’s been dissolved in milk – not what I’d be looking for in coffee, but if that’s what you’re into, then by all means go for it. I could see this drink as a pretty good budget substitute for high-end Starbucks Frappuccino drinks.

Interestingly, in the context of actual espresso beverages, cinnamon (and cocoa, and other ‘finishing’ products) are known as flavor “adulterants.” A bit of a harsh term, these products are used to mask negative or undesirable qualities of a coffee to make them more palatable; they’re the reason you see shakers of cocoa and cinnamon out there in Starbucks, since they both do a fantastic job at mitigating bitterness. Sometimes they’re used to make dark French or Italian roasts more attractive to those not used to the strong smoky flavors, though in yet other instances, like in the case of chicory root, it acts as both flavor mask and coffee filler product alike, taking on a life of its own as a completely different drink entirely. More on that another time, though.

(Incidentally, I actually happen to love cinnamon and coffee flavors together, and implement them a lot in my baking. Consider me as being on the side of the barbarians, I guess.)

Pokka Vanilla Milk Coffee Drink

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  • Cost: $1.39 for 240mL (0.58¢/mL)
  • Sugar Content: 16g (66.7mg/mL, or 3.94 teaspoons per 8oz.)
  • Ingredients: Water, Coffee Beans, Milk, Sugar, Artificial Flavoring, Sucrose Esters of Fatty Acids.

While the Vanilla Milk Coffee variety of Pokka beverages didn’t actually have any more sugar than its brethren, the somewhat-overkill amount of synthetic vanillin compounds makes this drink almost unpalatable due to its cloying sweetness. “It tastes like someone dissolved a few Nips Candies into this,” remarked Kae of Team Stripey Socks.  And indeed, it does – there’s a lot of creamy vanilla flavor going on here, but no coffee to speak of to be seen (or tasted). I’d give this one a pass.

Pokka Milk Coffee GOLD

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  • Cost: $1.49 for 300mL (0.50¢/mL)
  • Sugar Content: 20g (66.7mg/mL, or 3.94 teaspoons per 8oz.)
  • Ingredients: Water, Freshly Brewed Coffee, Milk, Sucrose, Stabilizer (E473), Flavoring.

Touted as Pokka’s premium coffee drink (despite it curiously costing less per ounce than its smaller counterparts), the Milk Coffee Gold was indeed the best of the milk coffee bunch when it came to actual coffee flavor. I found it very comparable to the UCC Milk Coffee Original Blend and ever-so-slightly less sweet, though still quite sugary in its own right. You could get just a little bit of nut flavors in there where you had nothing in the regular Pokka milk coffees, which unto itself made the Gold version a much more desirable drink. The artificial flavors here either took a backseat or were much more thoughtfully implemented, as well – I didn’t notice any stark tastes that were out of place or conspicuously fake-tasting. If you had to go with any of the Pokka drinks, I’d take this one, though again, there are still a fair many other brands that give better experiences for lower cost.

Jay Street Coffee Coffee Shot

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  • Cost: $1.99 for 190mL (1.05¢/mL)
  • Sugar Content: 0g (Sugar free!)
  • Ingredients: Purified Water, Coffee

Evoking a street in a staggeringly hipster-populated neighborhood in Brooklyn, it’s interesting to see multinational bottled-tea giant Ito En‘s take on boutique espresso bar-style coffee in their new Jay Street Coffee brand. Opening the can yielded a startling, pleasant surprise – I could actually smell the coffee before drinking it, a quality that has been pretty much nonexistent thus far into trying out these drinks.

The moniker “shot” and small can imply that this is a super strong shot of espresso, but the contents of this can is unmistakably straight black coffee. (The strength of this drink is moderate at most, but in the context of these Japanese coffees it is the most intense by a substantial margin.) The quality of the coffee here is significantly higher than the other brands, actually maintaining some actual character in its flavor profile! Still not a ton of fruitiness, maybe a shade of citrus rind at the end – I get some roasted grain notes without being overly smoky, and a little bit of woody earthiness. Again, not extremely strong compared to a freshly brewed cup, but still a much closer emulation than the other drinks tasted thus far. Ounce for ounce this drink does cost nearly twice as much as most of the other drinks, but the premium is reflected in its quality. Good stuff.

Wonda Wonderful Coffee Morning Shot Black

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  • Cost: $1.99 for 400mL (0.5¢/mL)
  • Sugar Content: 0g (Sugar free!)
  • Ingredients: Purified Water, Coffee, Flavoring, Emulsifier, Vitamin C.

In a similar vein, Asahi Brewery’s coffee-based soft drink division Wonda has a sugar- and milk-free entry to the canned coffee market that is somewhat more successful than UCC’s analogue, but still lies on the weak end of the coffee spectrum. The usage of some emulsifiers help address some of the undesirable watery mouth-feel that was in the UCC Black, which gives some plausibility to its perceived freshness; there is a little bit of grit at the bottom of the can, too, which for better or for worse adds a level of authenticity to this particular coffee experience.

The flavoring that is being implemented is thankfully subtle, and helps temper the smokiness of the coffee into a nice dark toast profile that doesn’t overpower the entire taste of the drink. (Note that the Vitamin C in the ingredients is not added for flavor, despite evoking mental images of citrus upon reading – it’s only there for preservative properties as it’s great at slowing down oxidation processes.) All in all, one could do far worse than this drink when it comes to unsweetened coffee beverages. Not bad.


It’s really interesting to see just how many different takes of the same type of drink there can be, even from the relatively narrow band of only Japanese-sourced beverages.  A few observations from this batch:

  • The benefit of using powdered milk in canned coffees (the UCC and Roots brands) is alarmingly relevant, as the milk notes from the Pokka drinks tasted watery at best and borderline-sour at worst.
  • In the context of per-ounce monetary costs, both the cheapest and the most expensive drinks were the most palatable. I doubt that the UCC Brand drinks, as the cheapest tried so far, have any particular illusions about being an end-all coffee beverage; it’s only once budgets can start justifying explicit flavor modulation that you get into really muddy territory with respect to how it tastes.
  • As before, Japanese ready-to-drink coffee is pretty weak across the board, favoring sugar and milk whenever possible. Probably not too far from how American drinks go, but that remains to be seen if and when I try this kind of thing again.

So. Where to go from here? Not sure, though one thing’s for sure – a cup of freshly brewed coffee sounds pretty good right now. Until next time!

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