“When life gives us lemons, we make -196˚ C Strong Zero Double Lemon!”
Perhaps beverage giant Suntory Holdings Ltd.’s commercial variation of the well known proverbial phrase best captures the appeal of its top-selling canned cocktail.
Once regarded as a simple, working-class drink, chūhai has made a spirited comeback in canned form, attracting new generations of deflation-minded, social media-savvy consumers looking for a cheap, quick fix to help them get through the daily grind.
Led by Suntory’s Strong Zero, sales of fizzy canned drinks with high alcohol content have surged, amassing fans on Twitter who share absurd literary parodies and often self-deprecating, satirical commentary reflecting the mixed drink’s newfound status as the go-to friend to cope with life.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a tall can of Strong Zero,” tweeted @iria3, lifting the opening line from Franz Kafka’s 1915 novella, “The Metamorphosis.”
“What dish goes well with Strong Zero? I reached the conclusion that it might be sadness, despair and loneliness,” tweeted @omu_rice87.
User @fujinoua offered this observation: “When I pour Strong Zero down into my stomach, I feel the anxiety toward my future easing somewhat.”
Akiyo Sato, head of Suntory’s ready-to-drink (RTD) alcoholic beverages department, said she was surprised to see how the vodka-based concoction has taken on a life of its own in the so-called Twitterverse.
“I hope consumers are enjoying themselves,” Sato said, adding that the company takes measures to raise awareness of the risks associated with alcohol consumption.
Major Japanese brewers like Suntory, Kirin Holdings Co. and Asahi Group Holdings are doubling down on canned cocktails to offset over a decade of shrinking beer sales stemming from changing tastes, especially among health-conscious younger consumers seeking drinks with fewer calories.
As of 2017, Suntory estimates the market for these drinks nearly doubled to over 180 million cases from a decade ago, with the company seeing its own shipments almost tripling in the same period.
While conventional chuhai products are around 5 percent alcohol, growth is most pronounced in the segment for sparkling drinks with higher alcohol content of around 8 and 9 percent, led by Strong Zero, which alone commands over half of the market in that category.
Meanwhile, shipments of beer fell for the 13th straight year in 2017 to 404 million cases, down 2.6 percent from the previous year.
“The popularity of stiffer canned chuhai reflects consumers’ frugal lifestyle habits. People want to get drunk on the cheap,” said Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.
Ready-to-drink cocktails with up to 9 percent alcohol fall into a low-tax category in Japan’s complex liquor laws, giving it the appeal of both variety and price.
A standard 350-milliliter can of Strong Zero Double Lemon, for example, has a suggested retail price of ¥141, compared with around ¥220 for The Malt’s beer, which belongs in a higher tax bracket.
Nagahama said the trend can be traced back to the 2008 global financial crisis.
“That led consumers to tighten their purse strings, and coupled with the low-carb boom, people went for spirit-based cocktails rather than beer,” he said.
Kirin’s market-leading Hyoketsu brand of sweet fruity cocktails introduced a heavier, 8 percent version in 2008 (which has since gone up to 9 percent), followed by Suntory’s 9 percent sugar-free Strong Zero in 2009.
“There has been growing demand among busy consumers for drinks that can provide a fast, comfortable buzz after work,” said Takayuki Narikiyo, Kirin’s RTD brand manager.
In April, the beer maker released a new series of 9 percent chuhai called The Strong, featuring an edgy black design and advertising a “hard” drinking experience.
“The desire for stronger drinks, especially among men in their 40s and 50s, is a trend we think will continue,” he said.
International firms are also looking to cash in on a market so far dominated by domestic brands.
The Coca-Cola Co. said earlier this year it has chosen Japan to roll out the first canned cocktail in its long history.
“We haven’t experimented in the low-alcohol category before, but it’s an example of how we continue to explore opportunities outside our core areas,” Jorge Garduno, president of Coca-Cola’s Japan arm, said on the company’s website. “This is a modest experiment for a specific slice of our market.”
The world’s largest beverage company will release three types of lemon-flavored chuhai exclusively in Kyushu on May 28, ranging from 3 to 7 percent alcohol by volume.
“It’s a pilot program. We will see how it is received in Kyushu and take it from there,” a spokesman for Coca-Cola Japan said.
Chuhai traces its roots to the chaotic postwar years when alcohol was in short supply. With whiskey being a luxury, people resorted to drinking shōchū, an inexpensive spirit that can be distilled from a variety of materials, including wheat and potatoes.
Takahiro Yoshida, head of the distilled liquor group at Takara Shuzo Co., Japan’s largest shochu-maker, said the drink back then was often of low quality and foul-tasting. To make it palatable, bars and street stalls began mixing it with soda water, calling it a “shochu highball,” which was eventually shortened to chuhai.
The mixture quickly gained popularity, especially after izakaya (traditional pubs) began serving them en-masse in the 1970s, adding fruit juice, flavored syrup and tea.
“In 1983, we launched a project to reproduce the chuhai as a canned drink,” Yoshida said. The following year, Takara became one of the pioneers in selling fizzy shochu cocktails with its signature Can Chu-Hi, which can still be found on store shelves over three decades after its release.
Since then, many variants have been produced, with vodka often replacing shochu as the base spirit.
Yoshida said the most common lemon-flavored chuhai, also known as a “lemon sour,” has been seeing a revival in Tokyo since last year, with izakaya and restaurants experimenting with a range of liquors and lemons.
“I believe this trend will become nationwide this year,” Yoshida said. Takara, for its part, has its own line of canned lemon sours and last year launched a bottled, premium “craft” chuhai series of drinks using lemons and other citrus fruits sourced from different locales.
Easy to drink and with a relatively low alcohol content compared to sake, wine, and other hard liquor, the cocktails initially targeted women and light drinkers. But the popularity of the stiffer, 9 percent chuhai underscores how the product has captured a wider audience.
Drinks with an ABV of 8 percent or more accounted for 3 percent of the RTD market in 2007, Suntory estimates. Now that figure has grown to 34 percent.
Unlike in the United States, open-container laws don’t exist in Japan. The ubiquity of the cocktails, which can be bought in convenience stores, vending machines and supermarkets across the nation, means it’s not uncommon to see people cracking them open on the street or while taking public transportation.
Shigehito Inoue, a self-employed 36-year-old who works in Tokyo’s Ueno area, enjoys drinking canned beer and chuhai outdoors on pleasant days. But he said he tries to stay away from the 9 percent drinks.
“A few of those can get you really hammered,” he said.
That combination of easy availability, low prices and potency “could be dangerous, in terms of alcoholism,” said Tomomi Imanari, the head of Ask, or the Japan Specified Non-profit Corporation to Prevent Alcohol and Drug Problems.
Imanari said she is disturbed by some of the comments she sees on the web praising the efficiency of the “strong” canned drinks.
“If getting intoxicated quickly is the main goal, it calls for caution,” she said.
Risks aside, the products appear to have generated dedicated followers.
Twitter user @HEwDOpvEki39Tej who goes by the moniker “Strong Ojisan” (“Uncle Strong”) has posted his own rankings and classifications of the numerous “strong” chuhai available.
He told The Japan Times via direct message that he wanted to offer a more objective examination of his favorite tipple since much of the online conversation surrounding “strong” chuhai leaned toward humor and satire.
In a recent Tweet he suggested how Suntory’s Strong Zero may have made its way into the daily lexicon.
“I see Tweets describing The Strong as Kirin’s Strong Zero. This is not a mistake, however. Rather, we’re witnessing the moment when a proper noun — Strong Zero — evolves into a common noun.”