Like bottled water, Japanese people buy bottled green tea at convenience stores, from vending machines, and quench your thirst.
Bottled green tea almost takes up the same space as bottled water at the convenience stores, if you go to a grocery store where has larger merchandise space, you can see many brands of just bottled green tea.
Until “Itoen” (伊藤園) invented canned green tea in 1985 and started selling bottled green tea in 1990, people took around their green tea bottled at home.
So selling ready-to-go green tea for Japanese customers were not easy thing to do.
Canned green tea and bottled green tea brought tremendous sales to Itoen, so Suntory couldn’t ignore Itoen’s glory.
This is the beginning of “Bottled Green Tea Battle” in Japan.
*By the way, Japanese bottled green tea is unsweetened. Moreover, Japanese people don’t add sugar to Japanese green tea. Personally, I never have heard it.
Itoen O~i Ocha
Ito En(伊藤園) is the largest Japanese tea distributor company and 4th largest company in the soft beverage market in Japan.
Ito En is the pioneer of commercial bottled green tea in Japan, and still now has to keep a top share for 30 years.
Ito En also has business worldwide, you may know “TEA’S TEA” brand produced by Ito En.
“O~i Ocha” (おーいお茶) has been the signature product of Ito En.
“O~i Ocha” means, “Hey, bring me a cup of tea please!”, this is often heard when husbands’ asking wives to bring a cup of tea. (*This situation is getting old lifestyle in Japan.)
“O~i Ocha” is particularly focused on “Freshness and clear green tea” taste.
Tea easily oxidizes and destroys flavors so it’s hard to keep freshness and refresh taste that is the most important feature for Japanese green tea.
To keep its clear and refreshing green tea color and flavor,
Ito En got issued a patent for the method of manufacturing refreshing tea.
Suntory had been chasing Itoen in the bottled green tea market, but it was not successful for the first few years.
Suntory is famous for its whiskey and other alcoholic beverages but also the major company as soft beverages products.
Suntory had the signature tea item, “Suntory Oolong tea” at the time yet the company’s “green tea product” attempt kept failed against “O~i Ocha”.
Suntory had co-invented bottled green tea products with “Fukujyu En”(福寿園), which has been around for over 200 years as the tea distributor especially “Uji Matcha” in Kyoto.
Finally, “Iemon”(伊右衛門) was released in 2004, and Suntory was a great success.
“Iemon” was admitted the picky customers as the authentic Japanese green tea which is blended with 20 different types of green tea leaves.
The New Rival
The new rival suddenly appeared in front of Ito En and Suntory in 2011.
“Ayataka”(綾鷹) was released by Coca Cola Japan.
The concept of Ayataka was very unique, which was “the green tea just brewed in Kyusu-a teapot”.
Therefore, “Ayataka” has murky green tea color compared with the standard clear light green color that “O~i Ocha” and “Iemon” are. (Iemon renewed the color later.)
The murky green tea color is not a negative meaning in this term, and this is very hard to translate in English. I don’t know I could find the right word or not, anyway it is called “Nigori” (濁り) in Japanese.
The cause of this “Nigori” color is “tannin”, a bitter and astringent ingredient in tea, and it is tea polyphenol. You may familiar with tannin contains in Red wine.
Until then, making the murky color of commercial soft beverages was a “taboo” because it was looked like “a defective item”.
However, Coca-cola Japan believed taking advantage of the murky green tea color was the only way to compete big two rivals, Ito En and Suntory.
With the support of “Kanbayashi Syunsyou Honten”, which has been the tea distributor for 450 years, Uji, in Kyoto, ” Ayataka” had drastically debut and was enough to compete two major bottled green tea.
Today, Ayataka has been in the top 3 of the bottled green tea market as well as “O~i Ocha” and “Iemon”.
The Never-Ending Battle
Each company keeps an effort to improve the quality of products every time rival companies renewed their products.
Ito En improved the manufacturing process of “O~i Ocha” more after Suntory produced “Iemon”, and also released the new bottled green tea, “Koi aji”(濃い味) in 2004, which has richer flavor and color.
Suntory released the new item which had richer flavor against “Koi aji” in 2006, and also renewed the amount of Matcha powder and made “Iemon” murky after “Ayataka” was the boom in the market in 2011.
Another new battle occurred when Suntory released the new green tea, “Tokucha”(特茶) in 2013.
“Iemon Tokucha” (伊右衛門 特茶) is a special health “Tokuho” product that contains a polyphenol “quercetin glycoside” that activates lipolytic enzymes and contributes to body fat reduction.
This big sale of “Suntory Tokucha” challenged other rival companies, Coca Cola Japan produced the Tokuho product “Karada Sukoyaka Cha”(からだすこやか茶) in 2014, Ito En produced “O~i Ocha Koi Cha”(おーいお茶 濃茶) in 2019.
Due to the global “health boom”, a new battle for not only the three major companies but also the market top has begun around 2018.
What is Tokuho?
“Tokuho”(特保), “Tokutei Hokenyou Syokuhin”(特定保健用食品) is the official name, means “Food for specified health use (Tokuho)” refers to commercially available food that has a scientific basis for efficacy and safety, and has been approved by the Consumer Affairs Agency in Japan.
It may not informative guide for the Japan trip but isn’t it interesting to know the background story rather than just grabbing a Japanese bottled green tea?
The pioneer company, Ito En had to start changing Japanese customer’s ideas; Bottled green tea is not worth paying because it can be made at home.
“O~i Ocha” is now the staple bottled green tea and still now have been top sales every year.
Suntory and Coca-cola Japan, worldwide beverage companies have been eyes on the top sales position.
Not only three major beverage companies, but there are also more companies such as Kirin, Asahi that keep improving their bottled green tea products.
Especially, the hot summer season is coming, the Japanese bottled green tea battle get heating up more!
Do you want to know other interesting Japanese food market???