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'90s trend finds new life across the Pacific

Tim Nelson
August 30, 2018

Remember Crystal Pepsi? Believe it or not, there was once a time when being able to see through your beverage was a mark of societal progress, pointing the way towards a brighter future. This happened roughly around the time everyone was wearing flannel and playing with devil sticks, so maybe it wasn’t the best time for American culture.

Almost twenty years later, however, Japan seems to be going through a crystal beverage craze of their own. One of the biggest trends in the country’s crowded drink market is a shift towards watered-down or cleared-up takes on everything from beer to soda and even lattes. It’s driven by a shift in consumer perceptions away from the drinks of old. Japanese drinkers are increasingly on the hunt for beverages that look healthy and inoffensive, in turn allowing them to enjoy sodas and (non-alcoholic) beers stripped at times and in places (like the office) that they normally wouldn’t.

“The need for drinks that people can enjoy without any hesitation is one of the reasons behind growing demand for clear-color beverages in Japan,” Ryo Otsu of Suntory Holdings Ltd told The Wall Street Journal. HIs company figured out a way to produce its non-alcoholic beer without the usual amber color, adding in a hint of lime zest and carbonation to turn it into something resembling a Lacroix marketed with “beer taste.”

Even truly unexpected clear drinks are finding success, as the story of Asahi Group Holdings’ Clear Latte shows. Somehow, their 60 calorie espresso water has spread like wildfire, depsite the fact that it doesn’t include any caffeine. The company sold 400,000 cases (with 24 bottles each) in just three weeks after its May release.

Going clear isn’t easy, though. It took Asahi an apparent 170 different formulations to get the taste nailed down before the Clear Latte was ready for sale. Coca-Cola Japan faced similar challenges with “Coca-Cola Clear,” which required a year of R&D to figure out how to replicate a lighter, zero-calorie, colorless take on Coke without abandoning its core principles.

“The caramel color is part of the DNA of Coca-Cola. To remove that essential component of the formula required really a development from scratch,” said Khalil Younes, an EVP at Coca-Cola Japan. But with Younes estimating that 5 million Japanese residents seek out sparkling beverages in the hot summer months, such an effort is worth it.

So now that it’s been repackaged as something of a health craze in Japan, will crystal-clear beverages mount a comeback in the US? Who knows. The market’s already flooded with seltzers and all sorts of vaguely healthy beverages. But if it works as a way to turn drinking soda into a form of healthy self-care, then sign me up.

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