Japan is known to boast a strong coffee culture. Of course, coffee in itself represents Western influence in the country, but it has also already entrenched itself in Japanese society with a particular, albeit evolving, significance. It first soared in popularity during the Meiji era. With the efforts of enthusiasts, it continued to hold a presence in Japanese everyday life until the early portion of the 20th century.
Coffee’s availability became sparse during World War II, but from the 1950s onwards, it took hold once more, and coffee has since steadily gained influence in Japanese culture. This means that even before the turn of the millennium and the global onset of third-wave coffee culture, which happened to be compatible with the Japanese kissaten culture, there already existed a demand for and supply of excellent Japanese specialty coffee.
Two prominent Japanese coffee brands that are internationally known for quality and that also predate the third wave phenomenon are Key Coffee and Sapporo Coffee Kan. Instead of pitting them against each other, we shall discuss their strengths and unique offerings, noting in the process their individual contributions to the identity of Japanese coffee.
When talking about the pioneers of Japanese coffee culture, it’s impossible not to mention Key Coffee. Already a century old, this coffee company’s foundation dates back to 1920 in Yokohama when Bunji Shibata started a grocery-can coffee roasting and processing shop. Initially going by the name Kimura, the business later adopted the Key brand and symbol.
Before the war broke out, the company was already on a trajectory of greater success, but due to the shortage of raw materials, coffee production became more challenging. Then, in the ‘50s, Kimura picked up momentum again, so much so that it became incorporated and began importing in-demand coffee varieties like Kilimanjaro from Tanzania and Blue Mountain from Jamaica. A couple of decades later, it struck the mother lode by investing in the Torajans and reviving the legendary Toraja coffee that had once been favored by 18th-century European royalty.
The succeeding period brought further triumph to the company, which also changed its name to Key Coffee. It was consistently prolific in presenting Japan and the world with innovative coffee products. It also branched out and started offering other food items, from tea and juice to meat and margarine.
Testament to Key Coffee’s significant role in Japan’s coffee culture is Bunji Shibata’s recognition as a representative of the country’s first coffee industry. There’s also the fact that Key Coffee has established itself as a household name not only in Japan but also in other countries. Besides these, It has multiple foreign subsidiaries and partners, further fortifying its international influence. It has also opened various Key Cafés, and its products are widely accessible. Furthermore, it has earned several important certifications, including ISO 14001 (effective environmental management system) and FSSC 22000 (food safety system).
I have written more detail about Key Coffee in this article here.
Sapporo Coffee Kan
Comparatively newer, this coffee brand traces the beginning of its journey to 1982 in Sapporo, the main city of Hokkaido in northern Japan. It started out as a shop that sold premium quality tea leaves and coffee beans.
In 1984, the flourishing business installed a 20-pound charcoal roasting machine and began full-scale production of sumiyaki coffee. This involves a rare, artisanal coffee-roasting method that lends the brew a more flavorful and enticing taste.
Two years later, Sapporo Coffee Kan opened its first café wherein its sumiyaki coffee was served through a manual pour-over method using a Nel drip. It soon gained loyal patronage, and its popularity led to the company expanding to open multiple cafés in other areas of the country.
In the ‘90s, Sapporo Coffee Kan began offering the then-unique service of delivering freshly roasted beans to workplaces. The “Office Coffee Service,” which has prevailed to date, also includes coffee machines and brewing equipment in the delivery.
While the sumiyaki method Sapporo Coffee Kan employs is radically Japanese, the company uses the highest quality coffee beans internationally sourced from the best coffee-growing spots in the world, including Brazil, Bali, and Sumatra.
Sapporo Coffee Kan’s special sumiyaki coffee can be enjoyed at the brand’s cafés, where the brand’s charcoal-roasted coffee beans can also be bought. Those abroad may also experience Sapporo Coffee Kan’s unique offering by ordering them from Japanese Coffee Co.
Brand Vision and Policy
The company’s philosophy is centered on “pursuing the world of coffee, realizing consumer demand, and creating a coffee culture that enriches people’s minds.”
Key Coffee’s goals for its 100th anniversary include becoming:
- The most reliable coffee company.
- The company that pursues coffee’s possibilities and provides value.
- The first choice of customers.
It aims to realize this vision by following these tenets:
- Make customer safety a principal concern.
- Respect important and absolute values.
- Rise to challenges and take the initiative.
- Stay up-to-date on the latest information and continuously learn.
- Act with awareness as a leading coffee brand.
- Remain open to different ways of thinking and respect individuality.
- Demonstrate hospitality.
Key Coffee’s slogan is “Coffee Named Passion.” It believes that pouring passion into its products allows it to connect people. This passion is manifested in the following:
- Its pursuit of quality, the consistent effort to draw out the best flavor from the beans.
- Its commitment to product development while being true to the original flavor of the coffee.
- Its conscious observation of its customers to learn how to move their hearts.
- Its dedication to delivering safe, wholesome coffee contributes to the customers’ overall sense of safety and security.
- Its desire is to nurture the coffee culture so that people can experience joy derived from a cup of coffee.
Sapporo Coffee Kan
The company’s core principle is to make specialty coffee available to as many people as possible. In the decades Sapporo Coffee Kan has been active, this founding policy has prevailed. As a regionally famous coffee roaster that supplies coffee in and out of Japan, it has certainly stayed true to and succeeded in its mission.
Besides this primary goal, Sapporo Coffee Kan is also guided by the following policies:
- Ensuring that the original qualities of the coffee are kept alive - The company holds the pursuit of the best-tasting single-origin coffee beans as a priority. These beans are taken to Japan, where they are roasted and brewed in such a manner that they retain their original flavor and aroma.
- Working to keep Japan’s impressive artisan industry thriving - It is Sapporo Coffee Kan’s artisan roasters’ hands that are responsible for turning those beans sourced from such places as Indonesia and Brazil into delightful roasts. Using the traditional Japanese technique of roasting on top-notch binchotan charcoal, these artisan roasters come up with sumiyaki coffee, which is considered a rare gem even in the specialty coffee scene.
Sapporo Coffee Kan’s slogan is “Have a Rich Time with the Best Coffee,” and the company makes this happen by being committed to the following factors:
- Careful selection of green coffee beans with just the taste customers want.
- Producing sumiyaki (charcoal-grilled) coffee from carefully-selected raw beans that get the direct-fire roasting from Binchotan charcoal.
If you’re wondering why sumiyaki coffee is exceptional, here are the reasons:
- Due to charcoal’s low water content, its combustion produces nearly no water vapor, making heat transfer better.
- A more even baking of the beans’ core is achieved, thanks to the far-infrared effect brought forth by burning charcoal.
- The alkalizing impact of charcoal ash has a moderately neutralizing effect on coffee’s acidity, resulting in the beans giving off a richer flavor and aroma.
- Managing the coffee beans’ freshness to maintain their alkaline quality after roasting and to prevent or delay the natural oxidation that happens over time.
- In their cafes, extracting through the Nel drip method allows the original, more rounded taste of coffee to pass through better than the paper drip way does.
Key Coffee is very hands-on about ensuring quality. It starts at the cultivation process at plantations that the company directly manages. From there, it moves on to the bean selection process and then roasting before finally serving the product to the customers. Key Coffee ensures that coffee’s best flavor isn’t lost even as it goes through these multiple steps.
This top-tier Key Coffee product has an almost mystical appeal. It is deemed the greatest among Arabica coffee beans. It was also favored by European royals in earlier centuries and was celebrated as “The Masterpiece of Celebes.” Solely harvested on the island of Sulawesi, the Toraja coffee was once lost, an unfortunate casualty of war. But through Key Coffee’s efforts, the old plantations were revived, and a regional integration business scheme was put in place, positively impacting the lives of the locals. With adherence to the company’s quality standards, Toarco Toraja is again one of the greatest gems in the coffee world.
The company’s strict quality standard is dubbed Type Key. It doesn’t only pertain to the production caliber that targets perfection, but to the trusted relationship with the communities, it works with as well. Key Coffee sources its beans from the best coffee growing regions in the world, including Tanzania, Ethiopia, Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, Jamaica, Indonesia, etc.
The product undergoes a close and repeated scrutiny process based on uncompromising standards. This is true for all Key Coffee home-brewed and professional-use coffee products, which include:
- Coffee in vacuum packs (e.g., Toraja Blend Ground Coffee and Premium Stage Special Blend Ground Coffee)
- Coffee in flexible packs (e.g., Grand Taste Rich Blend Coffee and Grand Taste Mocha Blend Ground Coffee)
- Coffee in live packs (e.g., Specialty Store Aroma Classic Blend Coffee Beans and Premium Stage Organi Original Blend Coffee Beans)
- Instant coffee and coffee mixes (e.g., Special Blend Instant Coffee and Café au Lait Luxury Tailoring Instant Coffee 8 Sticks)
- Drip-on coffee (e.g., Toarco Toraja 5 Pack and Caffeine-less Rich Blend 5 Pack)
Sapporo Coffee Kan
This coffee brand occupies a top-level position in Japan’s coffee industry, thanks to the different factors that guarantee the excellent quality of its products. To begin with, it works with the single-origin beans that it sources from some of the finest coffee farm regions in the world, with which it holds exclusive contracts.
Sapporo Coffee Kan also observes sustainable practices, usually employing natural and traditional production methods. To top it all off, as previously mentioned, its coffee is charcoal-grilled by artisan roasters, giving it a wonderfully rich and smoky quality. After this, the next step is a delicate manual brewing method using a Nel drip. Again, done by artisan brewmasters, this process creates a flavorful drink with a velvety mouthfeel.
Like Key Coffee, Sapporo Coffee Kan also puts a lot of emphasis on the freshness of the coffee it offers. If you’re ordering beans, you’ll get them in packets with valves that trap the air inside the bag, minimizing oxidation.
Sapporo Coffee Kan’s superior beans are mainly sourced from first-rate coffee plantations like those in the Tabih Village in Bali Batur Mountain, the Cerrado area in Brazil, and Mandheling in Sumatra, Indonesia. Its best-selling products are the following:
- Colombia Cerro El Pital - a light to medium roast from the Pital Mountain in Colombia.
- Brazil Cerrado - a medium roast from the Shimada Farm in the Cerrado region of Brazil.
- Quattro Mountain Blend - a medium roast blend from Colombia, Ecuador, Indonesia, and Uganda.
- Mandheling Berkat Lintong - a medium-dark roast from the Lintong region of Indonesia.
- Indonesia Mt. Batur - a medium-dark roast from the Tabih Village in Mt. Batur, Indonesia.
- European Mild Blend - a dark roast blend from Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, and Indonesia.
- Premium Decaf - a dark roast blend from Brazil, Colombia, and Ethiopia.
Although their offerings are pretty distinct and unique to their brand, Key Coffee and Sapporo Coffee Kan do share some similarities, the foremost of which is their commitment to the quality of their products. Both are meticulous about the selection of beans they use as well as the guarantee of their coffee’s freshness. More importantly, both offer a significant contribution to Japan’s coffee culture and provide an impressive representation of Japanese coffee to the rest of the world.