What is Calpis? The Unique and Tasty Cloudy Drink

11 November 2021 by Kim

Calpis or カルピス is a sweet and tangy milk-based concentrate, mainly used in drinks and to flavor Japanese shaved ice. It’s a drink loved by all age groups, from children through to grandparents, which has enabled it to expand across the world. But what is Calpis and why is it so popular? Let’s have a look.

Several bottles of Calpis Water on a shelf in a Japanese grocery store

Image via Shutterstock

History of Calpis

Despite its modern design, Calpis is actually older than you may think. It was made in 1919 by a researcher called Kaiun Mishima. He was researching lactobacilli, a bacteria produced by fermentation. A present day example of lactobacilli is a starter, such as sourdough or kombucha. 

In 1904, the founder of Calpis, Kaiun, headed to Inner Mongolia for a business trip. The trip to Mongolia was terrible for his digestion, and by the time he had reached his destination, his stomach had taken a turn for the worse. 

That is, until he drank the cultured milk that the locals offered. This milk was fermented for preservation and as a result, contained large amounts of lactobacilli (AKA lactic acid), thereby healing his ravaged innards and even making him feel invigorated and energized. He was astounded. 

After returning to Japan, he tried various methods and conducted research into how to harness its health benefits and make it available to a bigger market. Eventually, in 1919, he developed the drink by mixing sugar, lactobacilli, and skimmed milk. 

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The Unique Design

As the main ingredient in Calpis is milk, it was launched on the day Japanese people have a festival to celebrate an old tale which took place on the Milky Way - Tanabata (Star Festival). 

The Star Festival story celebrates two lovers who could only be together on July 7th, and only if they met on the Milky Way. So, Calpis was launched on July 7th, 1919, and took full advantage of the celebrations.

The packaging design featured white dots, like stars, on the blue background, and remains the same to this day, albeit with the colors inverted to a white background with blue polka dots. 

How is Calpis Made?

Calpis is made by fermenting lactobacilli and yeast with nonfat milk. In this delicate lactic acid fermentation process, the milk is slowly fermented, while also adding a top secret blend of bacteria, including lactobacilli. 

This special bacteria blend is akin to a starter, which has been grown by the brand’s team for tens of years. 

The resulting cultured milk product forms the base of the Calpis brand, and all their products are developed by simply adding ingredients to the cultured milk.

Cal..pis?

A bottle of Calpico, also known as Calpis, on a white background

Image via Shutterstock

The brand name is a portmanteau of cal- from calcium and -pis from the sanskrit word sarpis, which means ‘best taste.’ 

Overseas - particularly in North America - the packaging, flavor, and design is the same, with one small difference. It is not called Calpis. Instead it’s known as ‘Calpico.’ Can you guess why? 

In the Calpico brand, the original name is hidden in katakana (one of Japan’s writing systems) on the bottom of the bottle. 

Calpis Today

Since its launch in Japan over 100 years ago, this milk and lactic acid drink has spread across the world, a drink loved by young and old alike for its unique taste and the health benefits of drinking calpis.

Originally, it was loved for its concentrated form, which meant that it didn’t need to be refrigerated in order to keep. In pre-war Japan, this was a great selling point. 

To this day, Calpis is widely available as a concentrated drink - like squash - which is made by diluting it with water or milk. It can also be used as a sweet topping or sauce, for shaved ice, yogurt, or even cakes. 

The unique sweet and tangy flavor is now marketed worldwide and available in a range of varieties, from Calpis candy to cakes!

Two Japanese vending machines featuring Calpis and Asahi on the top of it with many other drinks in side.

Image via Shutterstock

Calpis Products

Walk past any vending machine in Japan and chances are you’ll spot a bottle of this Japanese original drink in there. This will probably be the readymade water-diluted type, but it could be one of many more…

The pre-made versions now have many different flavors such as grape, mango, and tropical, available in any soft drink section or a grocery store. And not just the classic water and Calpis type. 

Calpis soda is also very well-liked, made by adding carbonated water to the milk base. Between the non-carbonated and carbonated types, it’s difficult to say which is best - let us know which is your favorite. In fact, Calpis is often used in cocktails - look out for a Calpis cocktail in any bar or club. Many clubs in Japan serve Calpis-hi which is made with shochu (Japanese distilled alcohol), Calpis, and fizzy water.

The distinctive Calpis flavor makes it a popular Japanese drink for summer, as it is so refreshing and provides a great pick-me-up with added nutrients.

There are simply too many products to list them all, but just head to any convenience store in Japan to spot a range of Calpis products on the shelves, from gummies to candies. You may even spot Calpis-scented erasers.

See which ones you can spot!


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