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Tuesday, 26th May 2015
In Business In Japan,

Could 4-hour coffee queues in Japan spell the end for green tea?

Green tea has long been the favoured drink in Japan, but it seems the nation's taste for coffee could be posing a threat. Since Blue Bottle, a Californian coffee roasting company opened branches in the country, queues to enter the establishments have been so long that some people have waited four hours to get their hands on a cup, reports the Associated Press.

Blue Bottle is not the first American company to have seized the imagination of the Japanese, with the likes of Taco Bell and other fastfood outlets having done well in the nation before. What is different about the artisanal roaster's approach, however, means that the initial flurry of interest could continue.

James Freeman, the musician that founded Blue Bottle, openly admits that the concept for the brand was influenced by kissaten - the old-style tea shops of Japan. Unlike other large-scale chains, these Blue Bolt has taken this concept to provide slow coffee experiences, as opposed to sweet concoctions to go. Think dimly lit venues, with good music and real drip coffee.

Such attention to detail and a familiarity with Japanese culture appears to be working and accounts for the decision to launch Blue Bottle in the country. Prior to entering the Japanese market, the brand had only opened branches in the US, but intends to expand its operations further.

Jotaro Fujii, a consultant in the food industry in Japan, said that the shift away from the likes of McDonald's and Starbucks to more quality-driven brands is helping Blue Bottle's success. Shake Shack, another American chain offering upscale products, is expecting to open in Japan later this year and the popularity of Blue Bolt suggests it will work.

While Blue Bottle is a chain, it is not thought that the thousands of restaurants achieved by McDonald's is what the brand is looking for in Japan. Instead, between 50 or 100 would likely be the maximum target for the coffee roaster, although four-hour long queues could make it tempting to produce supply for the evident demand.

An appetite for coffee in Japan has not sprung up overnight with the arrival of Blue Bottle, with more than 1,000 branches of Starbucks performing well in the country for two decades. The only prefecture in Japan not to have a Starbucks coffee shop - Tottori - opened one this month and was greeted with long lines.

In true Japanese style, the country has not simply taken on the American coffee chain idea alone, but adapted it to suit its needs. For many, this has come in the form of manga-kissa - a coffee shop combined with a library, where patrons can read comic books while enjoying their freshly brewed beverage.

The prevalence of coffee shops has led to a reduction in the number of kissaten found throughout Japan. A government study showed that they have dropped by about half from the 1980s, with the most recent figures being for 2009. It discovered there are around 77,000 left, which means it is still possible to get a cup of green tea in the time-honoured manner, but more and more Japanese people are turning away from the practice.

While the extreme length of queues at Blue Bolt's branches in an old area of Tokyo called Kiyosumi and the fashionable district of Omotesando may have something to do with there only being two shops in Japan, this looks set to change. A third is likely to open in the Daikanyama shopping area later this year, tempting more people away from tea and towards coffee.

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