OSAKA (Kyodo) Japanese brewers are fiercely competing to sell canned “shochu” spirits with low alcohol content — known as “chuhai” — to deal with flagging beer sales.

Chuhai, an abbreviation of “shochu highball,” is a combination of distilled spirits, fruit juice and carbonated water.

Sapporo Breweries Ltd. re-entered the market this month after an eight-year hiatus with Fruit Sparkling, the last of the top four domestic beer brewers to enter the race to sell the fruity drinks.

Sapporo had pulled out of the market after two years because its product was expensive and not selling well.

The brewer is more optimistic this time as woman seemed to like the drink during market testing.

“Chuhai with a lot of fruit juice is popular with women,” said a clerk at the Kiba branch of Ito-Yokado Co. in Tokyo.

Analysts have said women hold the key to canned chuhai’s success, and beverage makers have been successful in changing the image the concoction, which has had the reputation of being a cheap drink for old men.

Kirin Brewery Co.’s Hyoketsu chuhai, launched in 2001, made low-alcohol drinks trendy. It made the image of chuhai more hip by putting Hyoketsu in a flashy can.

People liked the new drink and the market suddenly opened up.

Chuhai shipments last year exceeded 100 million cases — double that five years ago. Kirin leads the chuhai market with a 40 percent market share.

But as these products become more popular, beers sales are dropping.

One reason chuhai is so popular is its low price. A 350-ml can of chuhai costs between 100 yen and 150, yen while a can of beer is about 200 yen.

But sales of chuhai and other low-alcohol beverages are starting to slow after showing uninterrupted double-digit gains until last year. Industry sources predict the growth rate may fall below 10 percent.

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