Japan’s chocolatiers search for the sweet spot

January 24th, 2010 by Jason Jenkins

Left to Right: Sapporo's Chocolat Brewery Bitter beer, Suntory's Chocolate Sparkling soda and Asahi's Chocolat Cocktail

Left to right: Sapporo’s Chocolat Brewery Bitter beer, Suntory’s Chocolate Sparkling soda and Asahi’s Chocolat Cocktail

With weeks to go until Valentine’s Day (and its younger Japanese cousin, White Day), the barrage of new chocolate products and chocolate marketing has begun. Japan’s 285,000-ton-a year habit pales in comparison to western consumption, but the sweet stuff plays an major role in the country’s snack and dessert markets, as well as in societal traditions such as the o-chugen, o-seibo and omiyage. What was once considered a yearly social obligation for many women is now changing, but people continue to buy cacao products (including luxury items), if for no one else but themselves.

Recipes are not restricted to candy, however. A variety of chocolate-flavored beverages are now available at convenience stores. Japan Pulse’s independent and unscientific taste test found that the flavor of Sapporo’s Chocolat Brewery Bitter beer fits the winter palate quite well (although some disagree), but the brew loses points for being happoshu instead of proper beer.

Suntory’s Chocolate Sparkling soda was surprisingly drinkable, but the sensory equivalent of a trompe-l’œil for the tongue: How could something that goes down like Perrier taste like a Cadbury? W. David Marx over at CNNGo postulates that the drink might be have been engineered this way to appeal to the sweet tooth who watches their weight. Clear as club-soda with an equally clean finish, Chocolate Sparkling lacks the viscous, creamy texture one associates with chocolate beverages.

For that, there is Asahi’s Chocolate Cocktail, which is essentially rum-and-cocoa in a can. At 4% alcohol content, it’s dangerously easy to drink and will likely appeal to more people this winter if mixed into coffee or offered warm in one of Japan’s many heated-drink machines. For a more high-end choco-booze hybrid, Suntory has teamed up with Lotte to create chocolates using its Hakushu and Yamazaki brands of single malt scotch. Products like these are usually offered for a limited time period, in which they either thrive or quickly disappear, unlike chocolate-flavored instant ramen, which despite never trying I can safely predict will not have its production schedule extended past the February end date.

Any conversation about limited-edition chocolate in Japan would be incomplete without mentioning KitKat, who have mastered this technique more than any other. The sheer number and variety of  short-run and region-specific flavors is astounding, and worthy of cataloging. So stock up this winter, but if you’re one of those who justifies your sweet tooth via recent health benefits, you’re out if luck: Word now is that raw chocolate beans are the way to go, so I’ll take that Raspberry-Passionfruit Kit Kat off your hands, thank you very much.

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