Before I moved to Japan, I imagined carbonated lakes, rivers running thick with bubbling sugar, a snack-food nation governed by Willy Wonka-san. Japan really is a refreshment paradise, and I’m excited to taste whatever drinks the mad scientists are brewing up every few months.
There was the legendary Cucumber Pepsi, and a soda that tasted like Menthol. There are yogurt drinks and sodas with slimy chunks of aloe. Late-night carousers can snag a turmeric-flavored energy drink, while tee-totalers can take some nicotine juice along on that smoke-free train ride.
There are sodas, milk drinks, experimental beers, canned coffees, canned teas, canned tea-coffees, soda-beers, milk-sodas, coffee-milks and coffee-milk-sodas (but as of yet, no coffee-milk-beers).
Most drinks come and go with the seasons. Companies can (and do) throw anything they’ve got onto the shelves when product runs are limited to a few weeks. Whenever the temperature drifts up or down a few degrees, food fans scour konbini shelves for new formulas or pop-up brands before they disappear.
Summer is prime time for scoring a can of Japan’s weirder drinks: Sales of cold drinks rise, and companies race to find the most “refreshing” formula to beat the summer sweats. I popped down to my local konbini to sort out this summer’s batch.
Salty Watermelon Pepsi
I’m a totally voracious consumer of Kit-Kat and soft drink news. When I first heard rumors about this drink on the Internet, I was skeptical but intrigued.
I’ve got a peculiar fondness for flavors that sound kind of revolting. Delicious soft drinks are easy, but it takes an especially whimsical product manager to whip up something truly risky. Take the brilliant tobacco company employee who thought carbonated menthol – a terrible drink, but a beautifully ambitious one.
Salt, watermelon, and Pepsi? Yes, please. Every day I’d scour the konbini shelves. I was distracted by the gruesomely named (and somewhat flavorless) alternative, the low-calorie &lduqo;Pepsi Black Lemon.” Finally, on an ill-timed jaunt to Thailand, a friend Instagrammed a photo of my great white whale.
Unfortunately, Salty Watermelon Pepsi is not a mixture of salt, watermelon and Pepsi. In fact, it’s not Pepsi at all. Much like this winter’s variety, “Pepsi Pink” – a strawberry-milk flavor – the only thing “Pepsi-ish” about it was the carbonation.
Really, it’s a liquified watermelon Jolly Rancher with seltzer. Green melon soda is a fixture of fast-food chains here, so watermelon soda was a pretty tame offering.
The flavor wasn’t even salty. In Japan, and across Asia in general, people salt fruit to bring the sweetness out. It’s also suggested to help if you’re sweating a lot (and we are) – the idea is that you lose salt when you sweat. Traditionally, people here eat salty plums (ume boshi) that are sour and salty. This summer, salt is everywhere – we even have “salty chocolate” Kit-Kats.
Verdict: Too sweet. Would not drink again.
Asahi Red Eye – Tomato Beer
If you love gazpacho but hate that it’s not beer, you’d have been delighted for the six or seven days that Asahi Red Eye was available. It’s literally tomato juice and beer. It’s red. Bits of tomato float around. The slogan may as well be, “We dare you.”
This isn’t the first beer that’s taunted me into drinking it. Last February, “Red Romance” hit the market, a seductive blend of red wine and beer that sold for 100 yen per can. No Valentine’s Day is complete without a cheap, experimental mix of undrinkable wine-beer.
Red Eye is a confusing name. A Red Eye is a cup of coffee with a shot of espresso, or the last overnight flight. It seems like tomato beer is recommended for breakfast, like a Bloody Mary with beer instead of Vodka, or a tomato omelette with beer instead of eggs.
But I was shocked by how much I liked Red Eye. It was sweet and vinegary, a very Japanese flavor combo (I don’t see Japan’s carbonated-apple-vinegar shops taking off in America). The flavor was more tomato than beer, but the tomato had a sharp taste that cut into the beer flavor and made this beer almost dangerously easy to drink.
Tomatoes are valued for their sweetness in Japan, particularly cherry tomatoes, and have a strong summer connotation. A shop in my town was selling cherry tomatoes wrapped in chewy mochi and served cold, which were delicious.
If you come to Japan, you might be able to find a few discount cans of Asahi Red Eye around, but tomato season is waning. Even the mochi shop is switching cherry tomatoes out for grapes. Let’s hope Asahi doesn’t take that as a hint.
Verdict: Pleasantly surprised. Would drink again, if free.
The pun-derful “Espressoda” is, as the label says, “A twist of bold coffee and refreshing soda.” The cap twisted, excited bubbles rise to the surface, delivering the scent of fresh coffee grounds before mellowing into a light fizz.
Canned coffee is a Japanese vending machine mainstay. The coffee is universally unappealing – I can never escape the (probably imaginary) aftertaste of aluminium, and the scent of coffee residue lingers on your breath for hours.
I expected Espressoda to be canned coffee with bubbles. Shockingly, the coffee base for Espressoda is actually better than the coffee inside most canned coffees, probably because it’s “Espresso.” It’s in a plastic bottle, so there’s no tin-can placebo effect on my taste buds.
The result is a kind of a totally unsweetened root beer. You know how root beer tastes a bit like sarsaparilla with vanilla? Imagine sarsaparilla with coffee, and you’d have Espressoda nailed.
I got through the entire bottle, but not without second-guessing my commitment.
Verdict: Not awful, but unpleasantly confusing. Would not drink again.
Lazy Afternoon Root Beer
Root beer is an endangered animal in Japan. You can find some A&W in import stores, but I have never met a born-and-raised Japanese person (outside of Okinawa, where it’s basically everywhere) who enjoyed the taste of root beer. I’ve even heard it described as “America’s Natto.”
For what it’s worth, only North Americans and Okinawans seem to like Root Beer. It disgusts Europeans as much as it disgusts Asians. No one seems to know why, but most people think it tastes like medicine – which was precisely why I hated Menthol Soda. It was like drinking Vap-O-Rub. I couldn’t get past it.
So it was surprising to find that there’s a company making micro-batches of root beer in Kyushu. Lazy Afternoon is only lightly carbonated, but it’s a creamy brew with what I’d call “deep textures,” if I knew what that meant. And unlike the imported brands, Lazy Afternoon lacks the throat-burning sweetness of High Fructose Corn Syrup.
It also, notably, smells like a richer, deeper root beer than most canned root beers, which may be an attempt to shift it away from the medicine-ey flavors reviled by the Japanese.
Verdict: Will drink again.
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Header photo by uzaigaijin