Monday, Jul 16, 2018
Others | Asia-Pacific | Japan


Innovation expands Choya’s appeal

2 years ago

Shigehiro Kondo, CEO of Choya Umeshu Co., Ltd.
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Shigehiro Kondo

CEO of Choya Umeshu Co., Ltd.

Choya has become synonymous with umeshu, the traditional Japanese liqueur made from the plum-like ume fruit, and the market leader now is available in more than 60 countries worldwide. CEO Shigehiro Kondo explains what makes Choya so unique, its latest range of tasty award-winning products, and how it is looking at new opportunities in domestic and overseas markets.


Can you talk us through the origins of the company, and what motivated this shift towards umeshu production 60 years ago?

Choya was founded by my grandfather, and started originally as a winery in 1914. After 10 years of growing wine grapes, he started producing wine, which was just before the war began. After the war he had a hard time selling wine, as it wasn’t a major product in Japan. Sales were stagnating and there was no growth at all. Then he traveled to Europe, and in France specifically in places like Bordeaux and Bourgogne, where he found that wine prices there were surprisingly low – around 20% of our prices in Japan. The Japanese market back then was not open for overseas alcoholic beverages importation, and so he realized that Japanese wine would never be able to compete even when the market opens. So that’s why he decided to focus on beverages that could only be produced in Japan. At the beginning, he started working with sake and shochu, even though he faced intense competition in these fields. Each family was individually manufacturing umeshu at that time, so we decided to try to produce it on a larger scale. In 1988, we started to feel that our umeshu was really catching on.


How is Choya positioned in the market today?

Choya has already developed a big presence in Europe and in Asia, and we are growing quite steadily in the US market as well. Right now our competitors are disappearing in the US, so Choya is really the only one occupying the market space in America. Although the market is presently small, we expect it to grow over the next decade and we expect our sales to reach a million units.

In Asia right now we are targeting ethnically Chinese people. We are airing TV ads in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore. We hope these people will carry information to other Chinese speaking nations, and even mainland China.


Choya has been successful in keeping its footing in the markets it enters. In particular, you mentioned that in the US, competitors were exiting the market space. What specifically about Choya has allowed you to stay one step ahead of its competitors?

I cannot say we are successful right now, but Choya has a good start. Umeshu originated in Japan and doesn’t exist in other countries. This is to our advantage. If we work further towards just informing and educating the customers, we’ll certainly gain market share and steadily grow our sales. If people like the taste and like the product itself, then we will be successful. Right now we are just aiming to understand and educate consumers, especially in the United States. Choya already has its own agents and distributors in 47 states. They are putting emphasis not only in ethnic markets but also in local markets.


How are you ensuring the best product quality throughout the entire production process for Choya products?

Not many companies produce authentic umeshu. Choya is not labeling products “umeshu” anymore because we are traditional and authentic. It is this traditionalism that really sets Choya apart. We use actual ume fruit. We negotiate with farmers to acquire semi-organic fruits. They are grown in organic soil, without chemical fertilizers – the only thing is that it is difficult to avoid using pesticides year-round so we only spray in the off-season. That’s why we call it semi-organic.

What differentiates us from other companies is that we are able to obtain fruits grown in the manner we want. Every year Choya acquires 4,000 to 6,000 tons, which makes us the biggest buyer of ume. We infuse about 315g per bottle, which is an unusually high value compared to other companies.

We also try to cut the sweetness as much as possible. This is not an easy task because the ume fruit contains great amounts of acids, so sweetening methods are necessary to neutralize the acidity. We are currently performing research to come up with methods to create a beverage less sweet and with a smoother taste.


We saw that, in 2014, Choya redesigned its bottle, and more recently, you launched cocktails. How were your modernization efforts received, and how are they important to the future of your brand?

Innovation aids in Choya’s ability to expand to markets globally. When it comes to cocktails there are many kinds, but we are focusing on just a few. One cocktail we have is a mix of 70% champagne and 30% of Choya and a bit of lemon. It is a very nice drink. For banquets, our gin cocktail is perfect; it is made of 30% premium gin and 70% of Choya. In a sense, they are healthy cocktails. Gin contains lots of botanicals and Choya contains lots of organic acids and minerals. These are good for your intestine. Traditionally, in Japan, we stopped diarrhea by drinking umeshu. It can also prep the liver for breaking down alcohol.


Do you have a favorite cocktail?

In winter, I drink a mixture of 50% water and 50% Choya. It warms up the body, so after dinner I drink this every night. Before I used original Choya. Now I’ve changed it up. We have two new types I enjoy. One is aged for a year and the other for three years. Recently, one of them was awarded a gold medal in the ISC (International Spirits Challenge). Choya is the first liquor company in the world to obtain this medal.


We also read about your Gold Edition, it sounded very interesting.

Yes. It is actually made with 100% French brandy, which I acquire through a friend directly in France. And we only use special fruits in the process. Regular ume are usually the size of a ping pong ball, but there are also very large ume fruits, about the size of a tennis ball. The big ones contain high levels of acidity. We select the large ones and macerate them in a tank with sugar. To make it more gorgeous and healthier, we put real gold flakes, produced in the city of Kanazawa of Ishikawa prefecture, inside it. We supply the Gold Edition to duty-free shops and some famous places in Japan, as well as to other countries in Asia and in Europe as well.


You have such interesting products! When we met with Ishige-san of JETRO, one of the comments that he made was that Japanese companies usually excel in terms of technologies and know-how, but where they clearly lack behind is marketing their products globally. What are you doing to communicate the quality of your products to your customer base?

That is certainly true, yet for machinery and IT products, it is much easier because people can feel and see how they function. Alcohol beverages are more difficult to market as they are rather conservative. They need history for people to want to try them. We want to invest in more countries and create more opportunities for our products. We are using a lot of traditional tactics, such as product tastings to build awareness. In overseas and domestic markets, we are exploring new opportunities.


How are you planning to capitalize on the growing number of tourists coming to Japan to grow your product popularity and visibility globally?

Chinese tourists are becoming increasingly aware of the Choya brand. We have more varieties inside Japan than overseas, so they are attracted to the exclusive features they can find in Japan. Our popularity has meant a lot of people try our products in Japan and then take them back to their countries and expose them to their friends.


Are you working with Cool Japan?

We’ve met and talked a little with them. We have established communication to a certain degree, but we haven’t started doing any work together yet. However, some of my customers in London opened up store showcases and are negotiating with Cool Japan to get some financing.


Food diplomacy is an idea that in recent years has really caught on. What Japan often brings to mind is sushi, sake or ramen. As a manufacturer of the most recognizable umeshu in the world, how is Choya acting as a cultural ambassador for Japan? What do you think Choya’s brand says about Japan?

Our products are still small in terms of market share. While it is true that Japanese products are getting bigger internationally, at present we are still ways away from Japanese foods like sushi, kaiseki, tempura and others, so we still have a lot of room to grow.

In Europe, we are marketing a new product called “sushi wine”. While Japanese sashimi and sake are a good pairing, when it comes to sushi, which is made with rice vinegar, these are more difficult to pair. Even the famous Chef Nobu from New York agreed with this. That’s why we are working to create a wine made from ume fruit that pairs with the taste of sushi. We intend to introduce it in Japan next year. The production quantity is rather limited, so we can only sell it in Germany, but in the future we want to push it to other countries overseas as sushi is growing in popularity worldwide. We have confidence that this wine will be successful.


Where do you hope to lead the Choya brand ultimately?

That’s a very difficult question. I’ll be 62 next month. My time is limited, so three years from now, I hope to pass the torch to the next generation. They may have similar ideas to me or they may take the company in a whole new direction. One thing I do not see changing is the traditional Choya mindset. One that places importance on quality yet still values innovation.


What would you like to share with the readers as a final takeaway message?

Choya is very unique. Readers should try it themselves to discover it. 




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