Business | Regional Voices: Okinawa

Okinawa's Orion Breweries debuts first chūhai lineup with regional fruit twist

The Okinawa Times

Orion Breweries Ltd. launched its first lineup of canned chūhai a drink typically made of shōchū or vodka mixed with a nonalcholic beverage — on Tuesday, seeking to win over young drinkers who are increasingly drawn to the beverages and away from beer.

Three kinds of chūhai products containing vodka and locally grown shiikuwāsā (flat lemon) fruit juice debuted under the brand Watta. “Wattā” means “we” in the local dialect.

“By adding local fruit and spices, we aim to make it a brand that conveys the appeal of ingredients produced in the prefecture,” Orion Breweries executive Masakazu Miyazato told reporters on May 8.

According to the maker of Orion beer, the products have different alcohol content and flavors, and also use shiikuwāsā supplied by the prefecture’s agricultural cooperative, JA Okinawa.

There are three varieties under the Watta brand. The 4-percent low alcohol version has a refreshing aroma and sweetness derived from a blend of unripe and ripe shiikuwāsā. The 9-percent alcohol version targeting middle-aged consumers and those who prefer stronger beverages comes in two kinds — one is sugar- and purine-free, while the other features an extract of local shiikuwāsā.

Orion Breweries commissioned Okinawa Bottlers to manufacture the drinks, and some manufacturing will be done outside the prefecture. In the future, Miyazato said, the company wants to make the products at its own factory.

The drinks will be available at mass retailers and farmers markets within the prefecture. After the beverages are distributed in Okinawa, the brewer will expand its sales to other places in Japan. It plans to release a second and third chūhai range this fiscal year, which will end next March.

The aim is to sell 325 kiloliters of Watta chūhai this fiscal year.

Miyazato said his company began considering entry into the chūhai market four to five years ago as “people, mainly the young, are increasingly staying away from beer and their preferences for alcoholic beverages have become more diverse.”

Around the time the company began exploring the move, sales of canned chūhai, cocktails, highballs and other so-called ready-to-drink beverages clearly started climbing in the prefecture, according to Ken Nakachi, who heads Okinawa’s association of liquor retailers.

Orion Breweries believes that chūhai, which is cheap and has many different variations, will further increase its share of the alcoholic beverage market as domestic beer sales continue to fall.

Brewers’ shipments of beer and beer-like beverages hit a record low for the 14th straight year in 2018.

Meanwhile, RTD beverages are highly popular among young consumers.

The implementation of a revised liquor tax law, which unifies tax rates for different beer categories in mid-2026, will make the cheapest, no-malt “third-category” beer more expensive. This could further accelerate consumers’ shift to canned chūhai, so Orion Breweries hopes to retain customers by creating a new line of drinks.

Still, an Orion Breweries employee noted that beer will remain “the center of its branding strategy.” Acknowledging that a continued focus on beer and beer-like beverages would undermine its edge in a competitive market, the employee said, “By introducing chūhai, we want to cater to young drinkers who don’t like beer.”

While Orion Breweries is a latecomer to the chūhai market, it intends to set itself apart from other major producers with its lineup of unique products. It plans to get inspiration from a whole range of Okinawan food, including snacks and seasonings, for product development.

“While ingredients for making beer are restricted, chūhai can express flavors freely. We want to jointly develop products with other businesses in the prefecture and expand our market share,” the employee said.

This section features topics and issues from Okinawa covered by The Okinawa Times, a major newspaper in the prefecture. The original articles were published April 21 and May 9.