In Japan, where vending machines and odd soft drinks proliferate perhaps more than any other nation on earth, Coca-Cola has ushered in a curious new addition. Soon Japanese will be quaffing the world’s first hot fizzy drink in a can – spicy ginger ale to be exact.
This may not sound like such a feat, but it took four years of tinkering in a lab to develop the right mix of ingredients and technology to pull off a beverage that is heated, yet remains carbonated. Soft drink scientists have struggled to strike this balance in the past. The drink, which will taste like Canada Dry Ginger Ale, carries hints of ginger, apple and cinnamon.
“From a market perspective, this sounds like a great idea. Japan has been experiencing a ginger boom, especially among young women who think that hot drinks with ginger help to raise their body temperatures when it’s cold during autumn and winter,” Tokyo-based market researcher named Madoka Suganuma tells The Diplomat. As she points out, the belief that ginger warms the body is rooted in Traditional Chinese Medicine, often referred to simply as TCM.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Food manufacturer Nagatanien launched an extensive line of products as part of its “ginger club” (shouga–bu), with anything from ginger tea cup instant noodles in a cup and soup infused with the mildly spicy root. “Coca-Cola’s new hot ginger ale seems to be following this trend.”
Suganuma continues, “Japan’s beverage industry is extremely fast paced and the competition is intense.” Another major indicator of this heated competition is how many vending machines you see in Japan. “They’re everywhere. Even the technology that goes into the cans containing the beverages is serious business. There are always new technological developments that supposedly make the drink better in one way or another.”
She continues, “Companies do everything they can to differentiate themselves. Every season you see loads of new varieties released, only to be replaced by newer ones when the same time next year rolls around.”
For those who have never imbibed a hot canned drink they can sometimes be uncomfortable to hold – something that the Atlanta-based soft drinks giant hopes to address by encasing the liquid in a “double-chambered” aluminum can, which serves the double purpose of also keeping the drink insulated. Once cracked open, the can self-heats via an exothermic reaction. As Gizmag explains, the beverage is heated from an outer shell through a process in which water and calcium oxide are combined to set off a chemical reaction that heats the soda without affecting carbonation.
Proof that the possibility of discomfort does not deter Japanese consumers, a trip to a convenience store anywhere in the archipelago reveals an array of drinks on sale in a variety of temperatures and flavors. Numerous varieties of coffee – different blends, sweetened, straight, with milk, etc. – can be bought in both cold and hot varieties. But until now, this has been limited to coffee, and the odd tea.
Although it’s still in the high-20s Celsius on many days in Tokyo, crisp autumn temperatures will soon bring relief from a sweaty summer. The timing of the launch will coincide with this dip in the thermometer, which comes at a time when Japanese like to swill spiced hot beverages, reasoned Coca-Cola, which saw North American sales drop 4 percent last quarter after four of the past quarters seeing a decline. The hope is that the drink will be a hit this autumn.
But it’s a tough market out there for sugary soft drinks these days. As MSN Money pointed out, Coca-Cola’s “Share A Coke” personalized bottle campaign fell flat after failing to include a number of Europe’s most popular names on the series’ gimmicky bottles. And in Mexico the firm has been blasted for its purported role in contributing to the nation’s growing waste lines – now the world’s largest.
The lesson: launching a new beverage is a precarious affair. But when one really takes off, there’s no stopping it. “The biggest success story right now is Orangina,” Suganuma says. This orange soda is commonplace across Europe. But when it was transported to the Japanese market and rebranded as an upmarket drink, its popularity exploded. “On the other hand,” she adds, "there was a carbonated green tea that never managed to catch on. Sometimes it’s hard to predict what will succeed.”
While it’s too early to say for certain, it seems that Coke may be ahead of the curve by carving out a hot-carbonation niche. Apparently, Japanese beverage powerhouse Kirin also plans to unleash its first hot fizzy drink this fall: Kirin no Awa (Hot Hojun Apple & Hop). Its target demographic – like Coca-Cola’s for its heated ginger ale – includes women in their 20s and 30s.
Coca-Cola’s fizzy trailblazer, which will only be available in East Asia for now, will first be stocked in vending machines and convenience store shelves on October 21 and will cost 130 yen (about $1.30). Meanwhile, Kirin’s foray into the hot fizzy canned market begins November 5 with its Hot Hojun Apple & Hop also set to cost 130 yen.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see this catch on,” Suganuma says.
With any luck, Japan’s hot-carbonated trend will not fizz out.