The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

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As your sometime guide to Japanese culinary culture, I would be remiss if I let another summer pass by without talking about Calpis.

Calpis is a sweetened fermented milk beverage. The label says:

“CALPIS” is a cultured milk drink, a refreshing gift from nature.

People tend to either love or hate Calpis. It tastes somewhat like very sweet, thick yogurt syrup with a dash of buttermilk. It is similar to Yakult, which seems to have been introduced more successfully around the world. However unlike the “gut-friendly” Yakult, Calpis makes no claims about containing active-bio-friendly-Dr.-Something-flora and things. In other words, it’s basically bad for you, as a sugary beverage should be. (It does have some half-hearted blurbs about being a good source of calcium, but then there’s all that sugar.) The ingredients are listed as cane sugar, milk and ‘dairy products’ (lactose), maltose and soy derived sugar.

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It is sold as a carbonated drink (and labeled Calpico or Calpis soda, depending on where it’s sold), non-carbonated Calpis (or Calpico) water, and as a concentrate. There are fruit flavored versions too, but I like to stick to the original, unadulterated flavor. Derivative products include a premixed alcoholic cocktail called Calpis Sour, Calpis flavored candy, and frozen ices.

To English speakers in particular, the name is somewhat unfortunate, especially for a beverage. This is why Calpis has been marketed as Calpico in various overseas markets.

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Originally Calpis was only sold as a concentrate, in a heavy glass bottle. The bottle did not have a label stuck on it. Instead, it was completely wrapped up in textured white paper patterned with blue polka dots. The paper was pleated like a summery dress of the 1950s, the decade in which the bottle was designed. (Think Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch.) You can still get the concentrate in this elegant bottle (mostly in boxed gift sets), sans the pleated paper, but nowadays the concentrate is mostly sold in boring paper cartons. They have kept the blue-polka-dot-on-white design though.

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Calpis concentrate also makes a great syrup for shaved ice (kakigouri). When I was in Hawaii in November, I kept looking for Calpis as a flavor choice at the shave ice places, but never found it. I was disappointed. In Japan Calpis is ubiquitous.

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I’ve always preferred the concentrate over the ready to drink Calpis, because you can put in as little or as much Calpis as you want. My mother used to scold us if we put too much Calpis in our ice water. Even now I get a small guilty thrill when I make my Calpis nice and thick. I become a 10 year old again, sneaking into the kitchen when my mother wasn’t looking, to add a big extra dollop of the stuff in my glass. I would stir it well, but there would always be a bit of full-strength concentrate at the bottom of the glass. I would tip my head back, letting the thick syrup glide slowly down the glass into my mouth, the last, sweet treat.

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Unlike mugicha, my other favorite cold summer beverage, I do not indulge in Calpis that often these days. Mugicha is zero calorie and supposed to be good for you. 100ml of Calpis diluted to ‘regular strength’ contains 48 calories according to the official Japanese website. To compare, 100 ml of regular cola has 43 calories. (There is an artificially sweetened concentrate now with ‘60% less calories’, but it’s hard to find outside of Japan. Besides, what’s the point of artificially sweetened Calpis?) I would have to burn it off the way I did when I was 10, by playing Kick The Can for hours on end, to be able to handle more than an occasional glass. I tell you, growing up is highly overrated.

Calpis (Calpico) Water and Calpis (Calpico) Soda are available in many Asian grocery stores. Calpis concentrate is available at well stocked Japanese groceries especially in the summer, such as Japan Centre.

(Note: When I tell Swiss people about Calpis, they nod sagely and say “Ah, it’s like Rivella”. Well Rivella is also a cultured milk based drink (soda), but to me it tastes nothing like Calpis. Neither does the Migros knockoff Mivella.)

How to use Calpis concentrate

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The recommended dilution for Calpis concentrate is 4:1 or 5:1 water to Calpis. I have gone up to as high as 2.5:1, but that is a bit extreme. The concentration level of pre-bottled Calpis/Calpico water is about 5:1.

To prepare, just fill a glass with ice cubes, pour in concentrate to your desired level, then fill up with cold water. Stir well. Since the concentrate has a tendency to sink to the bottom, it’s best to serve this with a straw or muddler to stir it around with. For an extra hit of Calpis, finish off the glass with a swirl of extra concentrate.

Use the concentrate neat as a topping on snowcones or shaved ice.

Calpis Sour

This is a cocktail. I use vodka instead of shochu, since shochu is not easily available in Europe.

Pour 1 finger of vodka and 2 fingers of Calpis concentrate into a glass. Add ice cubes. Top up with water and stir well. (You can also shake it in a cocktail shaker.) Garnish glass with a slice of lemon. Serve with a straw.

Use soda water instead of still water for a bubbly version.

Photo credits: Calpis Water bottle - luisvilla; Calpico bottles - samk; Calpis vending machine - jpellgen; Calpis closeup with ice balls - chidorian; Calpis giftset from my mom. (Other photos are by me.)

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Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

Ah, Calpis! I do remember buying the glass bottles of concentrate, and frankly, I think it tasted better then. I introduced Calpis/Calpico to my children recently, and they too love the refreshing taste.

Cathy K. | 18 August, 2009 - 20:16

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

Thanks for the very informative article on Calpis. I have a carton of the concentrate in the refrigerator right now, it is a most refreshing drink.

I keep my Mint Julep cup in the freezer and mix the Calpis with cold water but without ice. The silver keeps it nice and cold, but then I don't exactly drink it slowly either!

Japan has such lovely summer beverages. I recently had a carbonated peach one in a metal bottle. It tasted like a fresh peach and was delicious.

Kuentos | 18 August, 2009 - 20:19

PEACH CALPICO!!

Calpico Peach is my drug of choice! ofc I cannot for the life of me find it in my city at all... I love love love Japan and all of their peach flavored treats and drinks.

reiyano | 19 August, 2009 - 00:43

Re: PEACH CALPICO!!

I love peach calpis sour! It is my favorite!

jennylou311 | 22 August, 2009 - 01:02

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I remembered when first Calpico entered our country back in the nineties. It was a boom! My mom used to store some Calpico in can for us to drink. She n dad loves it too.

I have no idea it was a Japan brand though, in fact, your entry has just told me that Calpis is the same as Calpico (^_^)' Too bad they are rather hard to find in the country I study on....

Haezer | 19 August, 2009 - 01:37

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I personally am one the the Calpis haters. I can't stand that diluted yogurt taste. I used to hate pocari sweat but can drink it now; even after 4 years in Japan, I still hate Calpis!

Good post, tho ;)

kanmuri | 19 August, 2009 - 02:48

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

Yay! Calpis! The flavored Calpis (especially strawberry or peach) are great as a soda substitute for ice cream floats.

another_amanda | 19 August, 2009 - 03:50

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

There was a display of various beverages for sale at the Richmond BC Summer Night Market. Included was Calpis, Calpico and other yummy drinks.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/hapabento/3836029048/?eOrig=3835226075

hapa bento | 19 August, 2009 - 06:21

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I absolutely LOVE Calpico and so do my friends. I'm planning on getting my friend several bottles and the original one with the blue polka dots are just what I want. Where would you buy a gift set like that?

kagnomi | 19 August, 2009 - 07:04

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

hello maki ....
i have been reading your recipes for a while now but this is the first time i am commenting here.....( simply because i found it difficult to comment several times...hope it gets through this time)....just visited the hungry tiger n it's wonderful site....thank you for that.
also i want to thank you for sharing soy milk recipe here as i make soy milk regularly following your recipe and have given a link to your site at my blog too....

sangeeta khanna. | 19 August, 2009 - 08:01

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

Oh, how this entry brings back memories! I remember the paper wrapped bottles. You described it so beautifully! I wish they still sell them that way. I have never tried Calpis concentrate on shaved ice. I must try that one day. I do make a summer cocktail by mixing the concentrate with some Soho (lychee liqueur) and topping it off with ice and water. It's a popular drink in Vancouver's izakayas. Thanks for keeping up a wonderful blog!

Sue | 19 August, 2009 - 09:36

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

yup, because my friends couldn't pronounce "calupisu", they used to say, "let's go get some cow piss". LOL.

i loved the concentrate. that brown bottle...that way you could fix it any way you wanted it. if you wanted it thicker, you could. or just pour the concentrate over ice. mmm, yummy! they had the BEST commercials. after watching the commercials, you HAD to go fix you a glass of cold calpis and gulp it down.

anon. | 19 August, 2009 - 22:40

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

We find that Calpis goes well with spicy things, especially curry, because the dairy cools the tongue. We make it with soda water and pour it into the glass together, hoping that they mix better that way (still have to swirl it a little).

Lillian | 20 August, 2009 - 09:15

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

When I first saw the name, I really did laugh out loud but then reading further it is easy to understand why they call it something else. It looks like milk that is for sure but being a traveler I am glad I know the difference. online casino

Paula.M | 20 August, 2009 - 10:00

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I love this drink, everytime I visit my relatives in Japan I used to use it as water instead of carbonated drinks. Last winter this year I found new variety of Calpis The PREMIUM, so luxurious packaging and thicker taste so good!

alcaparas | 20 August, 2009 - 15:38

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

Wow, what memories. I grew up in Japan in the 1960s until my family moved to the US and will never forget when Calpis (as "Calpico") became available in America - it was like an instant cure for homesickness. Those brown bottles with the lovely paper wrapping! Even now my heart smiles whenever I see Calpis on the grocery store shelves - even in those newfangled cartons. Knowing the "nutritional content" is a mixed blessing, though.... Thank you, Maki, for a great post (and your great blogsites).

Joyce B. | 20 August, 2009 - 17:37

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I first had Calpis Water in high school... A recently-transplanted Japanese family asked my friend to take their teenage sons out with us to experience early-90's American teen culture (in the form of Lazer Tag, miniature golf, scary movies and rollerblading). :) After every outing, their mom would give us an assortment of cool Japanese drinks. Calpis, ramune, Gogo no Koucha... so many tasty drinks with no real American counterpart!

It makes me sad that the Calpico you find in the American market is all made with high-fructose corn syrup, which I'm allergic to... but sometimes in the summer, I can find the concentrate (made with cane sugar), and that cool sweet and tangy Calpis goodness is mine again. :) Now if only I could find ramune!

J | 20 August, 2009 - 23:43

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

Is this kind of like Yakult? That stuff in those tiny little plastic bottles with the foil top? Because I drank that stuff like water when I was a little kid in China. Later, my parents freaked out about it, saying that it was pumped full of chemicals and hormones and what-not and blame all my issues on my drinking way too much of it...

Now, I can't say I enjoy the stuff anymore...It's got a curious way of making you thirstier after you drink it than before.

Takat
Writing away about my latest 3 week adventure through China at http://katacomb.blogspot.com

Takat | 21 August, 2009 - 16:02

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I bought Calpico for the first time last fall from a local Japanese grocery store because, although I didn't know anything about it, I was intrigued by the color and wondered what the flavor might taste like. Unfortunately, I did not like it, but it was interesting to learn more about it and read your personal experiences and memories!

Justine

justine | 21 August, 2009 - 16:39

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I first had Calpis in the early '80s when a Japanese room-mate
introduced me to it. I also loved the wonderful paper wrapped bottle, and that it was concentrated and you could make it the strength that you wanted. I also liked it because it was really thirst quenching! It was especially yummy during the hot Tokyo summers! And then the named changed to Calpico. I've wondered whether it was because "Westerners" thought that a dairy drink that sounded like "cow piss" was a little too far flung! Like the previous post, I can't do corn syrup. There's a cool chain of Japanese inspired convenience stores here in LA called "Famima", and I went in the other day and the little cans of Calpico were there looking all cool and refreshing... but it wasn't the same.

rdhead1 | 21 August, 2009 - 22:39

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

Hi, Does anybody happen to have recipes for making mousse with Calpis / Calpico? I had a great citrus yogurt mousse the other day. The chef told me that it had Calpis and heavy-cream in it, but I haven't been able to recreate it yet.

Michael L. | 21 August, 2009 - 23:23

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

They have calpico shave ice at Waiola Shave Ice in Honolulu. It's one of the best shave ice places in Hawaii so next time you're here, you should head on over there.

Shunkou | 24 August, 2009 - 03:44

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I was first introduced to Calpis when I was stationed in downtown Tokyo some 50-plus years ago. I loved it then, and I still do. But these days, I am much too old, fat, and fragile for such a sinful and sensual indulgence.

anon. | 25 August, 2009 - 02:32

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

なつかしい~

It's been so long since I've had any Calpis Water. It's the one and only flavour that reminds me of my time in Japan. I'm glad that there are other people who understand the symbolism of the drink. Nothing else is quite the same!-- And that fact remains slightly mocking due to the nature of its pricing here in North America. But one day I'll go back to Japan and continue drinking it daily.

Wonderful blog. I look forward to seeing more from you.

Flaire | 25 August, 2009 - 06:19

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I am living in Japan and I love Calpis! I stick to Calpis Zero to save calories, though...

Pamela Huxtable | 29 August, 2009 - 15:05

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

OK this must be fate. I had never heard of this beverage before this week, yet in the space of three days I encountered it three times!
First in a manga story I was reading where a character declared it his favorite soft drink, then here in this site's description a day later, then a day after that I saw it at a local Japanese market, where they had it on sale.

Well of course after all that I had to buy some to try. And I believe I have fallen in love! It's soooo yummy and refreshing!

They had the large bottles of flavored ones and the concentrate all at a discount. I bought a strawberry and the concentrate. The strawberry was good, but I really like the plain concentrate better!

So, not that I needed to learn to like another sweet treat, lol, but I think I will be buying this again and again! Thanks Maki!

BarbJ | 1 September, 2009 - 08:12

I lived in Japan for a year,

I lived in Japan for a year, and while I ate and loved a lot of things that make my family back in America wouldn't ever consider putting in their mouths, I have to admit, I'm one of the people who couldn't get over how weird Calpis's name sounds to an English speaker. I've never tried it.

Well... life's too short to go around NOT trying things. If they don't have it next time I go to the Asian market, I'll just have to try it next time I go back to Japan!

Ket | 5 September, 2009 - 20:31

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I went to my local supermarket today, which is Mitsuwa, in Kearny Mesa, CA. After I read your blog about Calpico, I wanted to have it really bad. I like it much. Have always liked it. Even as a kid growing up in Europe (and I am not Japanese, I am Austrian). Anyways...I shook my little blue box with 500ml of concentrate already in the store and it shook very watery, but nonetheless I bought it anyways, since it was the only Calpico Concentrate they had.And how different can one Calpico concentrate be from another Calpico conentrate? Right? WRONG!! How disappointed was I when I finally made my drink with it!! There was no lovely, globbiness coming out of the carton but rather a liquid almost similar to that of the ready made Calpis, that you can buy in the refrigerated section. So, I turned to your blog, again, and found out that there is a big difference in the concentrate that I have bought today and that is apparently being sold here and the one you describe. Mind you, the one I bought is still a "concentrate", says so on the bottle, but, the first ingredient is water. then sugar, nonfat dry milk, maltose and so on. So, apparently there are 2 kinds of concentrate out there. The one without water (which I am longing for) and the concentrate already with water in it. Maki, do you know anything about that?? So, Calpico buyer...... beware when you buy your concentrate!!!!

MizzBee13 | 7 September, 2009 - 03:45

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I don't have a carton of concentrate here to look at, but it wasn't really goopy - it was syrupy though, not watery like...um, water. If there is a watery concentrate, I am not aware of it, sorry. I will have to check it out next time I'm in the U.S. (I've bought concentrate several times this summer and they were all the same consistency.)

ETA: One thought - did you by chance get the Low-Calorie one with artificial sweeteners? I only bought that once, some time ago, but I think it was a lot thinner in consistency than the regular.

maki | 7 September, 2009 - 11:17

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

Thanks for the Calpis info! We just moved to Japan from the U.S. and immediately fell in love with the Calpis from the vending machines. Can't wait to get the concentrate and start experimenting with tasty treats!

Michele | 13 September, 2009 - 02:56

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

Well, it looks very tasty.
I would drink it! :D

Moniiku_Asami95 | 27 September, 2009 - 00:16

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I read the article and then found Calpico in a can - imported. The first sip was... well, weird - a bit like a med for diarrhea =.=' But then I each sip tasted better :P I think I'd like it... but the price - it's imported so it costs 3-4 times what normal soda drinks cost... that's a pity

Anyway - arigatou, Maki, for introducing such nice drink to me

Di | 30 September, 2009 - 21:41

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

We are an American military family that has been living in Japan for several years. My daughter left for college in the US this year and is COMPLETELY homesick for Japan so I frequently go to the local Max-Valu or Universe to assemble a box of "snacks from home" for her. Finding Calpis concentrate was the perfect addition to her boxes of matcha, Hi-chew, Pretz, and senbei! By the way, I have seen both Calpis (Calpico) and Ramune in the US in both average size Asian markets and the World Market stores chain for those with a craving.

anon. | 1 October, 2009 - 06:08

Miruton?

Hi hi, I'm a calpis lover myself, and I prefer mixing it into some cold milk :9
While I was in the local Japanese grocery, though, I found something called "Miruton" (Milton?) and I decided to try it out. It also came in a carton of concentrate, and the taste reminded me of Calpis as well. http://www.asianfoodgrocer.com/product/1400154-miruton-shiro
Have you tried this brand?

Jai | 14 October, 2009 - 17:13

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

Here in Hawaii we have mango and lychee flavored calpico, but I agree with you Maki, that original tangy flavor is simply the best!

Abigail Nickell | 5 July, 2010 - 20:39

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I <3 CALPIS. Every trip to the Asian supermarkets, we HAVE to get Calpis of I DIE. Okay not really. Most of my friends, however, refuse to try it, calling it 'cow piss'. Oh well, their loss. But I ran out a while ago and my mom won't let me buy more, so I'm suffering right now. :(

ShuSH | 18 July, 2010 - 20:45

Where to buy?

Does anyone where to buy calpis concentrate in the UK other than japancentre.com which is rather expensive?

Thanks

Alan | 20 March, 2011 - 14:12

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

Just got back from Japan and the Bottle back it said "CREAM SODA" and thats exactly what it tastes like... UNLESS THESE ANOTHER VERSION OF CALPISS its just standard CREAM SODA.

SAMSON | 30 August, 2011 - 03:31

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

It tastes nothing like cream soda.

anon. | 17 April, 2014 - 16:02

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

I must have overlooked this comment, but as Anon says, Calpis tastes nothing like cream soda. I've never seen a bottle of Calpis that said "Cream soda" on it either. There's another product called Calpis Soda, but Calpis itself is not even soda. Are you sure you were even in Japan?

maki | 18 April, 2014 - 00:13

Re: The sweet, cultured taste of Calpis

This takes me back to my childhood! The good old concentrate, with the unfortunate name, in the glass bottle. I haven't had any in years. I think I'll try to find some now! =)

KarenLana | 30 July, 2013 - 06:19

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