The market for “chuhai” cocktails is exploding in size, and producers are waging ad campaigns emphasizing low prices and quality ingredients such as fruit juice.

Once thought of as a drink for middle-aged men, ads for chuhai are now targeting women and younger men.

“Our estimate is that young men and women consume almost half of all chuhai produced,” said an official at a major beer brewer that diversified into the beverage.

Most chuhai is made from distilled spirits, mainly “shochu,” and include soda and fruit juice. Many come in 350-ml cans.

Various fruit juices are used, from that of Mediterranean grapefruit to plum to peach and muscat grape.

The beverage’s name is apparently derived from the second syllable of “shochu” and English “high.”

An official at major beer brewer Kirin Brewery Co. said: “Chuhai provides a mild sweetness and refreshing feeling, and those in their 20s tend to like sweet drinks.

“Chuhai has refreshing characteristics, and is similar in nature to beer in that sense,” she said.

A Suntory Ltd. spokesman attributed the burgeoning popularity of chuhai to low prices that match those of “happoshu” (low-malt beer-like beverages) and the use of fresh juice, “which softens the harshness of the alcohol.”

Suntory statistics show that the size of the chuhai market in 1998 was equivalent to 18.5 million cases of 24 250-ml cans. It soared to 42 million cases in 2000 and 50 million cases last year.

Projections for chuhai demand vary at competing beverage makers. A Suntory source estimated the size of the market for the year to Dec. 31 at 57.5 million cases.

But a source at a rival firm said, “We expect the market for this year to shoot up to the equivalent of 90 million cases.”

The projected sales would give chuhai a 3.6 percent share of Japan’s overall alcoholic beverage market. In 2001, the Economic Planning Agency, which has since been incorporated into the current Cabinet Office, estimated the size of its market at 5.96 trillion yen.

The projected 90 million cases would translate into 5.4 million kiloliters and sales of 216 billion yen based on 350-ml cans selling for an average of 140 yen.

The Kirin official said, “When canned chuhai debuted in Japan in the 1980s, it sold for 180 yen per 250-ml can.”

In 1999, “Suntory set a much lower retail price, 140 yen, for its 350-ml chuhai and waged a marketing campaign targeting young adults,” she said. “Now, alcoholic beverage makers are scrambling to release chuhai with ever higher-quality fruit juice.”

Makers import ingredient fruits by freezing them to preserve taste during transportation.

Takara Shuzo Co.’s Takara Can Chuhai and Asahi Kasei Corp.’s Hi-Liki, many in 250-ml cans, were cocktails with dominant market shares in the segment until the late 1990s. Hi-Liki is now sold by Asahi Breweries Ltd., as Asahi Kasei sold most of its chuhai operations to Asahi Breweries in September.

When Suntory introduced its 350-ml Super Chu-Hi for 140 yen in spring 1999, combined chuhai sales for the year shot up by 90 percent over a year earlier, with 1999 sales coming to the equivalent of 35 million cases.

Kirin added to the growing market in July 2001 when it released Kirin Chu-Hi Hyoketsu, which outsold Super Chu-Hi in the January-June period this year.

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