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Sunday July 5, 2009

Apricot alcohol, anyone?

A 95-year-old Japanese beverage maker attributes its success to a humble fruit drink that is not only versatile, but also packed with health benefits.

THE next time you are feeling tired, experiencing some digestive problems or losing your appetite, it may do you some good to head over to a Japanese sundry shop to look out for a clear cylindrical bottle of Choya umeshu, that contains a couple of round ume fruits (a kind of Japanese apricot) at the bottom of the bottle.

Japan is the home of umeshu (pronounced wu-meh-shoo), a light ume fruit liqueur, which is truly an authentic Japanese tipple.

Choya is 100% made from Japanese premium ume. In fact, you can add confusion to your list of maladies when you’re picking up a bottle of Choya as this popular Japanese brand has an assortment of umeshu to choose from.

Choya uses a unique cylindrical bottle for its umeshu liqueurs.

“Ume fruit is abundant in citric acid that stimulates appetite and helps you to recover from fatigue. It also stimulates the production of stomach acid and activates the digestion cycle. Citric acid is believed to prevent the growth of fungus and it helps reduce bacteria,” says Minoru Takahashi, a Choya executive in charge of sales in the Asia and Pacific region, in an email interview from Osaka, Japan.

He points out that the seed of the ume fruit contains benzaldehyde and it produces a gorgeous aroma when it is extracted into umeshu, which is believed to have a relaxing effect.

Ume is about the most misunderstood fruit and it is often mistaken for a prune (a preserved plum) - and this might have to do with its scientific name of Prunus mume.

Takahashi explains that ume is classified in the family of Rosaceae Prunus together with peach and cherry. To narrow it further – ume, plum and apricot are in the same sub-grouping of Subgenus Prunus.

“Although ume is often translated as plum in English, it is actually closer to apricot,” he clarifies.

Takahashi pointed out that there are nearly 1,600 kinds of ume trees.

He adds, “These are classified into two groups; Miume for edible use and Hanaume for ornamental purposes. Gojiro-ume, Sirakaga-ume and Nanko-ume are said to be suitable kinds for making umeshu, with Nanko-ume being regarded as the most premium ume among them, and this is the ume that is used by Choya.”

The ume tree is found in East Asia where there is a rainy season in June called Tsuyu (Meiyu in chinese) when it ripens, and it is said that the ume originates from China, and was brought to Japan in the Nara period (A.D. 710 – 784) or before as a medicated food, and then cultivated for various purposes.

Takahashi says that in China, the smoked ume fruits called “Wumei” are used for medicinal purposes, and its beneficial effects are described in the ancient pharmaceutical tome, Shinnouhonzoukyou, that was written more than 2,000 years ago.

Unlike most fruits, the ume fruit cannot be consumed fresh and needs to be processed.

The different types of Japanese alcoholic beverages are sake which uses a fermentation process (similar to wine and beer), shochu which uses a distillation process (like vodka, whisky and brandy); and umeshu which uses an extraction process which produces fruit liqueurs and absinthes.

According to Takahashi there are approximately 300 companies in Japan that produce umeshu and he claims that Choya is the first company that commercialised umeshu in the world and has more than 30% share of the umeshu market in Japan.

Choya Umeshu Co. Limited, was founded by the Kondo family in 1962 and it is headed by Shigehiro Kondo, chief executive officer. The Kondo family started cultivating grapes in 1914 and they started producing and selling umeshu in 1959.

Today, they export to more than 60 countries and they have opened branches in Germany, Shanghai and the US.

Besides umeshu, the company produces fruit liqueur, brandy, sake, wine, foods and beverages.

Takahashi pointed out that the name of the company, Choya, was derived from the combination of “Cho” which means butterfly and “Ya” which means arrowhead.

He elaborates that the foot of the mountain ranges of southern Kawachi (now part of modern-day Osaka Prefecture where the Choya company is established) area and Ikoma area form the habitat of butterflies, including the tiger patterned Luefdorfia Japonica Leech.

Also, many stones and iron arrowheads from the ancient cultures that thrived there during Japan’s stone Age and Burial Mound Age have been unearthed there.

“To keep the life of the company in tune with the life of this area, the two words ‘butterfly’ and ‘arrowhead’ are put together to reflect typical features of the area, forming the company name,” Takahashi explains.

According to Takahashi, since China is the country where ume originally comes from, there was already a market where people accepted the taste of ume.

He adds, “In order to accomplish a reasonable price point, we set up a factory in Shanghai in 1997. Whereas in Germany, where our turnover is the biggest, our brand had already made headway earlier as the Germans basically enjoyed sweet wine and Choya was accepted as a wine rather than as a liqueur.”

Takahashi revealed that after Germany, the other big markets for them include Taiwan and Russia, and he adds, “The import volume in Malaysia has also increased recently with the Japanese food boom.”

“Since umeshu has been enjoyed in Japan for a long time, the biggest turnover is off-trade markets like supermarkets, convenience stores, and liquor shops. However, umeshu is often listed in the menu at restaurants, izakayas and bars as well, and of late, we are seeing some umeshu bars with the recent umeshu boom,” he explains.

With the ume fruit believed to have a lot of benefits for health, Takahashi concludes by saying, “Our policy is that we place a great emphasis on the quality of both this precious ingredient and the process of manufacturing without using any artificial ingredients like preservatives, flavour, coloring and sour agent.”

Choya products are distributed by Daisho Foods (M) Sdn Bhd in Malaysia.

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