Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Calpis Soft Drink

Calpis カルピス

by Johannes Schonherr

Calpis bottles in a Japanese supermarket.
Calpis bottles in a Japanese supermarket

Calpis is a classic Japanese soft drink sold as a concentrate and based on fermented milk, first introduced in 1919. It has a slightly acidic flavor, similar to plain yoghurt.

Though Calpis is often just mixed with water or milk for quick consumption, the variety of its uses is endless. It can be mixed with any kind of fruit syrup or fruit juice, it can enhance the taste of ice cream or served as part of a cocktail.

Some people consider Calpis to be a refreshing summer drink, others drink it throughout the whole year, some appreciate its healthy properties, others just enjoy the taste. In any case, Calpis is one of Japan's most popular soft drinks.

Searching for the original Calpis concentrate in a Japanese supermarket can be a bit confusing at first. In the chilled drink section you always find a variety of ready-to-drink Calpis sodas. Looking for the concentrate, you have to go to the non-chilled section which is usually not that far away but definitely on a different set of shelves.

Calpis advertisement in the Yomiuri Shimbun, March 1920.
Calpis advertisement in the Yomiuri Shimbun, March 1920

History of the Drink

The history of the drink started in the year 1904 when Japanese businessman Kaiun Mishima (1878-1974) travelled to Inner Mongolia. He encountered there a drink named airag (in other parts of central Asia known as kumis) made from mare milk fermented with lactobacilli.

Weakened from the exhausting travel, he recovered very quickly after consuming the drink a few times. He also liked the drink's acidic flavor and he concluded, rightly, that airag played a great part in enabling the people of Inner Mongolia to stay healthy in the harsh climate of the region.

Mishima returned to Japan with the mission to create a similar drink, a drink that "can contribute to people's lives", as he said.

Since in Japan mare milk was hard to come by, he focused on cow's milk. After studying lactobacilli and the related fermentation processes for more than a decade, Mishima's newly established company introduced Calpis to Japan for the first time on July 7 1919.

Calpis ready to drink.
Calpis ready to drink

Calpis Bottle Design

July 7 is in Japan the much celebrated day of Tanabata, also known as the Star Festival. Two lovers in heaven, punished by the gods and thus separated by the Milky Way, are allowed to meet only that one night in the year.

The original bottle design of Calpis already featured the stars of the Milky Way in the form of multiple dots on a black background. Today, the bottles are white but still show lots of polka dots. The connection of Calpis to Tanabata stays on.

Popularity of Calpis

The drink was an instant success after its inauguration. As a concentrate, it didn't require refrigeration and thus could easily be stored even during the hot summer days. Consumers quickly got inventive and came up with all sorts of recipes on how to use the drink.

Mishima saw his company blooming until he died at age 96 in 1974. Perhaps his frequent consumption of Calpis had an impact on his lifespan?

In the 1980s, ready-to-drink chilled Calpis soft drinks started to appear on Japanese supermarket shelves in plastic bottles. Much research had gone into them to appeal to the tastes of as many as people as possible.

Still, that development came as a big surprise to many. "We always had our private family recipe on how to make the best Calpis drink," many wondered, "Now, the mix in the plastic bottles is how Calpis is supposed to taste like?"

Some thought that the ready-to-drink sodas were superior, other stayed on with their family traditions.

In 2012, brewery giant Asahi Group Holdings acquired Calpis.

Variety of Calpis Products

Today, the original Calpis concentrate is still available in every Japanese supermarket while the variety of the chilled Calpis sodas is almost endless. By now, Calpis candies and other sweets are also available.

An inscription on the top of the standard 470ml bottle of Calpis concentrate states that using one fifth of Calpis for a 150ml glass, you get 15 drinks out of one bottle of Calpis. It doesn't say what to mix the drink with but one might assume that it means either water (carbonated or not), milk or soya milk. Some people might argue and say that they get either much more or much less out of a bottle. It's all a matter of personal preferences.

The inscription below the logo translates to Peace to the Body, meaning that the drink is both relaxing and healthy. A remark reflecting Kaiun Mishima's original intentions.

Buy Calpis from GoodsFromJapan.
Buy Calpis from GoodsFromJapan

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