“Can Coffee” – Coffee Soft Drinks (revisited, re-tasted and expanded)

cold coffees from the can

My palate is familiar with the taste of coffee drinks as something hot, and if cold, than related to milk shakes or (Italian-style) iced coffee with a floating vanilla ice cream scoop. This means drinking cold coffee has always meant using milk products with it, unless, as they say in Germany, it is ‘kalter Kaffee‘, referring to coffee which has gone cold, meaning something too old to be of importance or too unimportant to dwell upon. I think it is not just a matter of the taste buds, but also of the mind and custom. A rich espresso, a mokka or an Ethiopian coffee, cold? Improbable! Hence the taste of black coffee in a cold state had not yet been registered in my mind, although many months ago I did experiment a bit with the notion of a coffee lemonade, a topic I am currently working on.

Some weeks ago I had a slight urge to taste what it would be like to drink black coffee out of a can as a soft drink. With this thought some questions arise: are these drinks about the intensity and the bitterness of an espresso in a cold state? Is it plainly a soft drink with the lightness of a coffee water, similar to water with a light orange or apple taste to it, as we see it in the market for several years? Is it coffee or modified coffee? In Asia there is a very large market for bottled coffee drinks, the so called “can coffee” industry. Momentarily companies like Pokka (Japan), Mr. Brown (China) and Illy (Italy) are making a lot of advertising in Europe. Wise thought, considering the high temperatures in Europe and North America. The Greek Dimitrius Vankondios found the solution in 1957 (by chance) and initiated what we know today as the Frappe. That is the very idea of enjoying (or consuming) the coffee taste while been refreshed as well.

Shortly after the thought of drinking a refreshing cold coffee crossed my mind I thought it to be better having the chance to compare right from the beginning, and not just finding out about the experience of drinking cold coffee, but to look a bit behind the cold coffee recipes being offered in this vast industry. My first choice was to buy a Pokka “Black Coffee” and a Mr. Brown “Black Coffee”. The first impression was the information charcoal roasted on the Pokka can, which reminded me of the Italian coffee roasters Tre Forze and Maria Sole both using olive wood for their roasting. Now I have added a couple more to the cold coffee assortment, re-tasted and reanalysed.

Black Coffee (charcoal roasted), Polkka, Japan

Black Coffee, Mr. Brown, China

XPress (black roast), Nestlé/Nescafé, Switzerland

issimo (Italian espresso style), Illy, Italy

Espresso Aromax, Pokka, Japan

The first differences are quickly detectable while reading the ingredients.

  • Black Coffee – Pokka: Water, Freshly Brewed Coffee, Sugar
  • Black Coffee – Mr. Brown: Water, Sugar(6%), coffee-extract 1,7% / Refreshing drink with milk and coffee-extract (without milk)
  • XPress – Nescafé: nothing found in my languages!
  • issimo – Illy: 100% Arabica
  • Espresso Aromax – Pokka: Water, Coffee (5.8%), sugar (4.5%), condensed milk (1.6%), powdered skim milk (1.4% ), cream (<0,5%), sodium caseinate (<0.5%), stabilizer polysaccharide thickener (<0.1%), cellulose E 460 (<0.1%)

It is difficult to know what that all means. “100% arabica” is NOT at all possible, for I did drink it and only due to the amount of water there must have been in the can 🙂 … An Espresso Aromax has too many ingredients for my wallet and it is more than confusing to read “ESPRESSO” as the biggest letters, see also a clear photo of an espresso shot being obtained and later to find in the almost unreadable writing that it has milk and cream in it. Nice packaging idea, though. Interestingly enough, the German details for Mr. Brown’s Black Coffee mention the use of instant coffee, which is not the same as coffee-extract, as it is printed on the can.

Pokka was established in Japan in 1957 as Nikka Lemon and their first products revolved solely around lemon beverages. It was not until 1972 that they started producing coffee drinks, categorized world-wide as can coffee. In 1996 they then brought their new coffee production method to the market, called de-oxygenation. Pokka explains their methods of producing can coffee as follows:

De-oxygenating Method – A method of retaining the taste and aroma of freshly brewed coffee by thoroughly eliminating oxygen, which impacts on the freshness of coffee, from raw materials and during the manufacturing processes

First Drip Method – Pokka’s original technique of using only the first batch of the brew reduces any unpleasant and bitter taste by extracting a rich flavor to realize a clear aftertaste with a sophisticated taste.

Pokka Espresso Method – The original technique reproduces the authentic taste of espresso with the use of steam. The method extracts a delicious rich taste and distinctive aroma to realize the great taste of espresso in canned coffee.

Fresh Natural Aroma Method – Pokka’s unique technique captures the ascendant aroma during the brewing process. This method delivers the sensitive aroma of freshly brewed coffee in canned coffee.

Mr. Brown is produced since 1982 in Taiwan by King Car. In 2008 their instant coffee was found to be contaminated with the organic compound melamine, for which reason they now use milk products from New Zealand. Their website offers only subtitles for English readers, hence the limited amount of information.

Nescafé belongs to the Swiss Nestlé and it is the section responsible for the realm of coffee, well known and innovative for many years and mostly responsible for the worldwide market of instant coffee.

Illy is – of course – the well-known Italian coffee institution, one of the driving forces in the Italian coffee industry from its beginning on.

*

Nose

When drinking can coffee one must discharge all previous notions of coffee as a natural product, just as one must sip a canned apple juice with completely different expectations to the drinking of a self-juiced apple at home. Conscious of this I opened my cans. From Pokka’s Black Coffee the first perception on my nose was a breath of vanilla with a combination of ‘flowery’ notes which remind me of soft drinks, but not of coffee. The first breath of Mr. Brown’s Black Coffee is much more complex and edgy and I recognize quite well the smell of ‘cold coffee’. When sniffing on XPress, the nose stayed blanked. No aroma! The smell of cream with some coffee is what dominates the nose with the Espresso Aromax. The best aroma must be noted for Illy’s issimo, very malty aroma.

Palate / cold

Pokka’s taste I must describe as flat, though somehow agreeable with the idea of a light-weight coffee meant to be drank as a freshener. It is much like water with a light scent of coffee, but no weak, just a bit unusual for a coffee-drink. Mr. Brown’s has much more of the typical bitterness expected by many from coffee. The composition tastes earthy with a citrus note. It reminds me of the intensity and sharpness of an espresso. One may compare the taste of both with normal and strong cigarettes. Pokka being a light cigarette and Mr. Brown being almost a full-body cigarette – but ONLY in this comparison. The taste of issimo is again the winner. An extreme contrast dominates due to the fact, that, among these products tasted, only Illy refrains from using sugar. When speaking with a few baristi I am repeatedly surprised that they do not seem to notice how salty espressi actually are. At least my tongue says so. Issimo keeps up with that aspect very clearly and the taste is clearly that of an espresso. You may consider this one a special espresso taste, while Mr. Brown’s would be more a middle of the road all-pleasing espresso mixture with several familiar coffee notes mixed in one drink.

Wishing to drink a soft drink with strong and full coffee taste, I would choose a cold Mr. Brown. Wishing for a cold espresso, definitely an issimo would be my choice. If I wanted something peppier, and not a clear coffee taste, then Pokka’s charcoal roasted Black Coffee. I would stay away from Xpress and Espresso Aromax ALLTOGETHER!

Palate / hot

Do not heat in original container” are the words on the Espresso Aromax can. At first I was surprised. My idea was to taste coffee cold, however, I opted to try them all hot as well.

The Espresso Aromax seems to have been conceived for this purpose. The packaging goes very much in this direction being the only can one could twist open and tightly close again.

I did the temperature comparisons separate, so that the temperature judgment is not based on simultaneous tasting of each single product in cold and hot state.

The Nescafé Xpress is once more a disappointment. It is no wonder, a bottled drink of this type which cannot deliver in its cold state will most likely not turn for the better when warmed up. It tastes like some soft drink. No soda taste, no coffee taste, no “black roast” taste. Pokka’s Black Coffee and Mr. Brown’s Black Coffee are pretty much the same in warm state. No differences were noted. The same variations and consistency I keep tasting in Pokka from my first sip on is still there when warm/hot. Amazing is to me the quality of the issimo. Needless to say, what I heated up is NOT an espresso and it was certainly also not prepared in the factory as an espresso, but for what it is, it is a very much drinkable intense coffee. The fact that is has no sugar contributes to the taste of “pure” coffee. Pure, because one drinks and tastes a coffee shot and not just an industry drink made of a coffee.

After-taste

The differences here are fairly constant. A coffee-unlikely combination of flowery-vanilla taste remains from Pokka. A sharper after-taste remains from Mr. Brown, almost smoky, as actually Pokka had suggested.

Both drinks look far from soft, but very dark, Mr. Brown being a bit more dense it its colour. All in all, for the kick some seem to need, for the refreshment needed in hot summer days and for the joy of the taste of coffee, can coffee could be seen as an additional coffee-experience, but not as an alternative, as substitute-coffees may like to claim. It is much more about the feeling of soft drinks and less about coffee as we ‘know’ it. This is perhaps the proper idea for the desire of having coffee-to-go, just as Toshikage Tanida, Pokka’s founder, suddenly thought many years ago:

“I wish I could enjoy coffee in the car easily…”

The after-taste of issimo stays on top of the other drinks, again. But the strong and typical coffee after-taste is pleasant with issimo, as well as with Mr. Brown. The after-taste of Espresso Aromax is cream powder. Nothing pleasant about that!

All in all

I do not see any reason at all for wanting to drink an Espresso Aromax, although the can is certainly a collector’s item and there seems to have been a lot of thought put into it before it reached the market.

Nescafé XPress tastes sweet and as a soft drink of some sort, but at no point did I feel I was drinking coffee.

Pokka’s Black Coffee is not my taste, but acceptable as a soft drink with coffee taste.

Mr. Brown offers a cold drink which is clearly coffee but with a profile conceived to be liked by many. Not a bad profile, but for the masses.

issimo is in my eyes a daring product, trying to please hard-core coffee drinkers on the go and trying to put the qualities of a warm cult-drink into a drink meant to refresh. It is also amazing that all were kept cold together for many hours (almost 3 days), so they had the same temperature when taken out. All were shaken well before opening, but only issimo had an inviting ‘cream’. Clearly identifiable in the picture on top.

a small assortment from the cold coffee market
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