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A while back, one of our delightful Tofugu readers brought something to my attention: Chu-hi in America. I never thought the day would come. “Takara Can Chu-Hi,” in America – not imported, but actually made here. Had my dreams finally been realized? Had the booze gods answered my prayers? Was my favorite Japanese drink available everywhere at long last? Well, no – not really. And I’m not happy about it.

Chuhai, Chu-Hi, Chūhai

chuhai

As much as it pains me to admit, I’m sure some of you are unfamiliar with the nectar of the gods (aka chuhai/chu-hi). I wrote a post about how much I love the stuff, but I’ll give you a quick rundown here.

Conventional Japanese chuhai is made with shochu (Japanese alcohol around 25% ABV) or vodka, and flavored soda water. They are sold in cans and they are delicious. They come in many flavors and are cheaper than beer with ABVs ranging from 2% to 9%.

There are many different manufacturers of chuhai and it’s been around in Japan for a long time. They seem to be viewed as more of a “girly” drink, kind of like Smirnof Ice and Mike’s Hard are in America, and kind of taste similar to these malt beverages, only much better.

The bottom line is that chuhai is cheap, tasty, varied, and awesome.

The American Chu-Hi Blunder

Okay, so Takara Saké – they’ve been making Chu-hi since the late 70s and are a huge name in the business so it’s no surprise that they were the ones to break down the international barriers and bring this drink to the USA. What is a surprise is the decisions they made while doing so.

From the Takara Saké USA website: “Chu-Hi was the first Japanese-style sparkling cocktail to appear on the Tokyo drinking scene in the late 70s. In summer 2012, we renewed our Chu-Hi. We added ‘JPOP’ to the product name, and now we have 2 flavors – Grapefruits and White Peach.”

So apparently these had been around for about two years already, but I only just recently discovered their existence myself. The only place I’ve seen them is at the local Japanese market. I haven’t seen them in any normal grocery store, but that doesn’t really surprise me.

I tried to figure out what made them decide to bring this over to America after so long. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any real information concerning this. I can only surmise that they read my whinings about it on the internet and decided to do it just for me. I appreciate the effort, Takara, but in the end, you’ve disappointed. Let me tell you why.

Ingredient Changes? Really?

malt

Photo by zolakoma

When our most loyal Tofugu reader Joanna W. informed me of these American Chu-Hi, she also commented on their taste. She stated that they did not taste all that great and just reminded her of flavored malt beverages from America, like Smirnof Ice, and not in a good way. She wondered if the Japanese ones tasted this way and how anyone could be as crazy about them as I was.

Upon hearing this, I became concerned. Was the flavoring just bad on these Chu-Hi? Had Takara made a mistake? Or, wait – oh no… had they changed the formula to “appeal” to American tastes?

Unfortunately, the answer was yes. They had changed the formula. These were not the Chu-Hi that I loved. They were a bastardized version that disgraced the name.

For whatever reason, Takara decided to make these American Chu-Hi with a malt base instead of shochu/vodka like they do in Japan. The result of this is that the American Chu-Hi just taste like crappy Smirnofs. They are not new, exciting or refreshing. They’re just one more lousy flavored malt beverage that brings nothing new to the table.

Since the ingredients for Chu-Hi aren’t exactly listed out online, this is the only change that I am aware of. There might be other slight changes, but the malt/shochu change is so huge that I don’t even think other smaller changes would matter that much. I bought each of the American Chu-Hi flavors recently and gave them a taste test. Here’s what I thought.

Taste Testing

chuhi

The first thing that made me wary of these American Chu-Hi was the fact that they came in bottles. Chuhai in Japan was always in cans – never in bottles. Something is wrong here.

The next thing I noticed was the price. Chuhai in Japan was cheaper than beer. The prices ranged from maybe 60yen ($0.60) to 110yen ($1.10) or so, depending on the strength and can size. They were an amazing deal. Now these American Chu-Hi – they were priced at an unreasonable $2.75 (~280yen). Already I’m grumbling and I haven’t even tried the thing yet.

On the bottles, they say that they’re great over ice. I always had chuhai out of the can in Japan, but I decided that I would try these American ones both ways. First just out of the bottle, and then over ice to see if there’s a big difference.

Grapefruit: 6.5% ABV, $2.75 a bottlejpop1

From the Bottle:
This tastes just like a Smirnof, if Smirnof made a grapefruit flavor. That’s not a compliment. This tastes much less like grapefruit than its Japanese counterpart and tastes a bit too heavy and sweet and just not good. I think I would start to feel sick if I had more than one or two of these.

Over Ice:
This tastes just like a Smirnof, but over ice. This improved the flavor a bit since the ice melting made it a little bit lighter and not as sweet. The ice improved the drink, but it still didn’t make it good.

As grapefruit was my favorite chuhai flavor in Japan, this drink was a gigantic disappointment.

1/5 Stars, would not buy again

jpop2White Peach: 6.5% ABV, $2.75 a bottle

From the Bottle:
Similar to the grapefruit, this tastes very similar to a Smirnof. The initial taste of the peach is quite pleasant though, but immediately after that initial taste comes the oppressive malt taste that ruins the flavor. Definitely better than the grapefruit, but not by too much.

Over Ice:
At first I thought that the ice really changed the flavor for the better because the oppressive malt taste was absent at first, but soon the taste returned and it tasted much like it did before, but colder. Not much of an improvement.

The peach was better than the grapefruit, but not by much.

2/5 Stars, would not buy again

Conclusion: These do not even deserve to be called Chu-Hi. Do not judge Japanese Chu-Hi by these imitations. There is no comparison.

But Why Were the Ingredients Changed?

chuuhai-ad

Photo by Dick Johnson

I learned from Chopsticks New York that Takara Chu-Hi “reached the U.S. market two years ago with a slight modification of base ingredients and flavors to meet the American people’s palate. This August, TAKARA SAKE USA INC. re-released it by renewing its name to JPOP, revamping the package and tweaking the flavor. ‘We changed the recipe of the malt alcohol, the base of the drink, in order to get refreshing flavor. As a result, its carbonation became more noticeable on the palate,’ says Mr. Hirokazu Nishikawa, General Manager of Marketing in TAKARA SAKE USA INC.”

WHY, TAKARA, WHY!? Yes, maybe Americans prefer more carbonated, malty type beverages that they are familiar with, but not when they cost so much and offer nothing new but two (underwhelming) flavors. If you expect people to pay $2.75 for a bottle of this, it should at least be new and exciting and worth the steep price of admission. Ugh.

Again, I was unable to find much info concerning exactly why they made this change and the whole thought process behind it, but I am incredibly bummed out about it. I also don’t like how they added the JPOP moniker to it. I don’t know if they are trying to be clever with the JPOP by saying it’s like Japanese (soda) pop, or if they’re trying to relate it to J-pop as in Japanese pop music or they just thought JPOP would be easier for Americans to remember than Chu-Hi, but I don’t like it. I think it’s silly.

So do I think anyone is going to try this and think it’s better than anything currently available in America? No. Do I think anyone will buy it again after trying it once? Definitely not, especially when it costs so much more than what “America’s palate” is already used to.

Western vs Japanese Alcohol “Taste” Confusion

suntory

Photo by Rollofunk

Speaking of America’s palate as compared to the Japanese palate, this isn’t the first time it’s been an issue. We’ve written about Japanese beers and Japanese whiskies before, and there are reasons why you don’t see these alcohols with the saturations that Japan has. In the end, the tastes are (supposedly) different. When’s the last time you saw someone drinking an Asahi outside of an Asian restaurant?

Koichi helped to weigh in on this topic a little bit as well:

When you look at the history of alcohol in Japan, it’s quite interesting. The competition between beer companies in Japan revolves around how dry the beer is and how much koku (rich taste) it has, with quite a bit of emphasis on the dry side of things. This pairs well with foods that the Japanese eat. An Asahi Super Dry certainly pairs with my katsu/ramen/yakitori much better than, say, a double chocolate stout, or something like that (or even a Budweiser, for that matter). This has become considered a very “Japanese” taste to the Japanese. In some cases it becomes a bit of Ninhonjinron pride, if you ask me, which results in the thinking of “only Japanese people can understand this taste.” Obviously this isn’t true, but this is probably why the American Chu-Hi version got sugared up and malted, because that’s what “Westerners like.” They thought they’d make more money this way and probably don’t understand why things didn’t work out. If only they hired John on as their American Chu-Hi CEO.

In the case of whiskey it’s basically the same thing. Although you see some trickling of whiskey coming over to America, you’ll notice that certain Hibiki whiskeys, like the 15+ year old variations, are not sold outside of Japan. This is because non-Japanese “won’t understand the Japanese taste,” which I’m guessing is just their way to keep all the good whiskey to themselves, because wow those are some good whiskeys.

—Koichi

In the end, I think there’s a confusion about “Japanese taste” and “Western taste.” Sure, you have to take into account what kinds of foods you’re pairing these alcoholic drinks with, and that does make a difference, but a lot of assumptions get made too, which means the original Chu-Hi recipe gets carbonated, malted, and sugared up for our “Western” tastes.

The Future of Takara JPOP Chu-Hi

ZHplBIO

In my opinion, Takara made a colossal mistake with their American Chu-Hi. Quite frankly, I’m amazed that it’s still even being made. I’m also really surprised that I hadn’t heard of these American Chu-Hi until now even though they came out in 2012, but that just speaks to their unpopularity.

I expect these American Chu-Hi to do terribly, and eventually get pulled from the market, so if you have any interest in trying them out and discovering what all the disappointment is about, do it now before it’s too late.

I really wish that Takara would have had more faith in the American people and their willingness to try new things. Maybe I’m outside the norm here, but I like to try new things and get excited when I see something new and appealing at the grocery, especially when it’s in the booze aisle.

If Takara had made these things in cans with their original recipe and priced them more aggressively, they would have been an overwhelming success (with me, at least). But as they are, I’m never going to buy them again.

Shame on you, Takara. Shame on you.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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  • Cheru

    Maybe Kirin or Suntory can learn from Takara’s mistakes and step in and do it right.

  • John

    We can only hope.

  • Mike

    I think the switch to a malt base may have been driven more by the weird alcohol laws in the US than by taste.

    If
    it is malt based, it is regulated in an identical manner to beer i.e.,
    it can be sold in grocery stores and convenience stores pretty much
    everywhere.

    If it is not malt based but instead uses a distilled
    spirit as a base, then it is regulated like hard liquor, which means the
    distribution would be hampered by a labyrinth of state laws, reduced
    availability, and much higher taxation.

    This is why almost all these types of drinks are malt based in the US.

  • Cody

    Hrm I think Koichi might be confused about why you can’t get Japanese whiskey so often in the states and it’s nothing to do with the taste. The 17 year Hibiki is great and the 21 is freaking amazing if you can stomach the 15k yen (duty free) for it. Don’t even have to take my word on it, it won best blended whiskey in the world in an international tasting competition. It’s all about supply though. These companies are more concerned about keeping up with domestic demands before exporting it. The Hakushu and Yamazaki 10 years have within the past year been sold out. The supply is literally gone so we’ve been downgraded to a non-labeled general distillation (although 12 years and up are still available).

  • shiro

    Thanks for this explanation, it makes a lot of sense.

  • shiro

    I think they may have gotten “American” taste confused with “18 year old kid who just started drinking” taste, though.

  • John

    I had no idea about those laws but it still seems strange that the only place I’ve seen these has been in a Japanese market. Maybe it’s just Ohio though. I would be really surprised to see these in a regular grocery.

  • http://greanerpastures.wordpress.com/ Brin

    I still want to try some. ;(

    I miss Chu-hi.

  • DAVIDPD

    I really enjoyed the American version, but I also like Mike’s Hard Lemonade…I know, classy. I guess I will just have to get myself to Japan to get the real deal stuff. Thanks John. Also, I am saddened they changed the recipe for the US market.

  • Raymond Chuang

    I think another issue the article didn’t mention is the level of alcohol allowed by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) under certain excise tax brackets.

    For tax purposes, American-made chu-hi is probably going to be limited to circa 5-6% alcohol by volume. (This is why beer is limited to 5% alcohol by volume.) If someone is smart, they should make chu-hi that is limited to 5% alcohol by volume but tastes very close to the Japanese original.

  • Vague

    Interestingly enough, Smirnoff Ice also differs by region. The ones sold in America are malt-based, whilst the ones sold in Europe are vodka-based. Maybe the European ones taste more similar to Chuuhai?

  • John

    Really? I had no idea. I bet those European ones taste a lot better.

  • Harry Reems

    I’ve tried the peach flavored one and it can in no way compare to Kirin Peach when it was still available in Japan. That drink was amazing! I feel your pain.

  • bigwonk

    I think you’re right Cody and I believe Koichi was at Nikko distillery within the last year and may seen this first hand. Perhaps too much sampling on that trip :-) I have a hard time in Tokyo getting my hands on some of the Nikko Miyagikyo whiskeys so I’m selfishly glad these aren’t getting shipped out of country. Productions are low although the nonjatta blog can help a little in flushing out possibilities.

  • Eric

    With beer and whisky, I don’t think there’s a culturally defined flavor. I think all peope have slightly different preferences, and in the end, it’s much more about brand loyalty and personal preference. Japanese whisky rocks! But I’ll take a good bourbon any day, thanks.