Choya: the name of a butterfly for the world's largest producer of Umeshu


28 maggio 2024

Umeshu is a typical Japanese liqueur made by macerating ume in alcohol.

The name Choya comes from the combination of two terms: a unique Japanese butterfly known as Gifu Cho, and a series of Stone Age artefacts that include arrowheads - ya in Japanese. Both the butterflies and the artefacts are located in the Komagatani area, where the company that took this name was born. Takehiko Okazaki, Choya's Export Manager, takes us through the history of this world-famous company and tells us in detail what Umeshu is, how it is made and how it can be drunk.

Can you tell us something about the beginnings of Choya, and how the company started producing Umeshu?

Choya was founded in 1914 and has been existed as No 1 producer of ume fruit liqueur around the world. In Japan ume fruit liqueur is called Umeshu (ume is the name of a fruit, shu means alcohol beverages in Japanese language). The founder of Choya, Mr Sumitaro Kondo grew grapes and produced wines and brandies. In the 1950s, he visited Europe for wine research and was impressed by the high quality of wines in Europe. He realized that Japanese domestic market of wine would be swept away by imported products in the future. He considered producing unique Japanese alcohol products using Japanese fruit ‘ume’ and started producing Umeshu in 1959. Umeshu is traditionally homemade liqueur, and any companies didn’t consider producing Umeshu for business purpose at that time. Choya is the pioneer of Umeshu producer as a commercial basis with the mass production volume in Japan. 

In Italy we don’t know much about ume and its history: can you tell us about this particular fruit and the selection process for Umeshu production? How important is quality for a perfect Umeshu?

The existence of ume fruit is said to be traced back to over 4000 years ago in China. Ume was introduced from China to Japan about 2000 years ago as a Chinese medicine and has been developed for a variety of use in Japan and became one of the most popular fruits. Many people in Europe misunderstand it for Japanese plum or apricot. It looks like them but ume is ume. Fruits such as Ume, plum, apricot, peach, and cherry all belong to same rose family (Rosaseae) and they may look a little similar; however, they are different fruits.

Ume is very sour to eat raw and usually used as a processed food.

Ume is rich in citric acid and minerals (potassium, calcium), Vitamins (B17, E) and considered having good effects on recovering from fatigue (especially from summer heat) and balancing digestive system and having anti-bacterial effect. Also known as anti-aging power by the vitamins and citric acid. 

Choya uses only Japan-grown ume fruit. We work closely with local ume farmers to research and develop both ume and optimal soil on which it grows. Thanks to this dedication we consistenly obtain high quality ume fruit. Our philosophy is “Good Umeshu is made from good ume; good ume comes from good soil”.  

In Japan there are more than 300 varieties of ume fruits. Choya uses mainly premium ‘Nanko’ species from the Kishu region in Wakayama prefecture. Nanko is tipically large in size, with thick flesh and high in organic acids. Harvest season of ume fruit is June, in the beginning of summer. It is the rainy season and called “rain of ume” which makes ume fruits to grow and ripe. They are carefully picked at its peak right before it falls from the tree. Choya uses only the best suitable ume for Umeshu making.

Can we go through the different production steps of Umeshu?

Umeshu was traditionally made at home in Japan. The production process is very simple. Ingredients are ume fruits, sugar and distilled spirits. At home people use Japanese traditional spirits, shochu. People put them into jar and wait and let them age for a certain period like one year.

Choya follows the traditional hand–made process but on a mass scale and improve the process by long time experience as a pioneer of Umeshu making. 

Choya selects premium ume fruit which passes Choya’s quality standard. Ume fruits are brought to the factory and washed and later steeped in dedicated ageing tanks, with a capacity up to either 50KL or 100KL, together with alcohol and sugar. In total, we have about 450 Umeshu ageing (storage) tanks that are separated by the type of ume, its region, variety, size and ripeness. 

Our tanks are designed in order to protect against external influences such as light, temperature, and air. This allows us to age the ume liqueur carefully and deliberately for about a year and more fully extracting ume components through a process we call “Still Ageing” (Independent Ageing).

Then our master blenders analyze various qualities of each Umeshu batches (aged Umeshu in each tank) including the taste and aroma. Only Umeshu that meets strict Choya standards is bottled, inspected, and packaged.

Choya is pursuing ‘natural’. We don’t use any artificial ingredients like additives such as acidulants, colourings, and flavourings for our products. Moreover, Choya focuses on 3 points: quality of ume fruit; quantity of ume fruit; ageing. Other companies can’t realize these quality standards. So that’s why our product is not only Umeshu. This is more than Umeshu, this is Choya.

Can you also tell us the main characteristics of the three products that we distribute?

The Choya Extra series are our premium products using Nanko ume. They are mainly sold at duty free shops at international airports. The main product of the series is Extra Years. The based liqueur is aged more than 2 years. It’s the authentic Umeshu made by Choya’s special production process. The sweet and tart taste introduces you the world of Choya. You can discover a fragrant fruity aroma, a hint of almond, marzipan, and orange rind.

The base of Extra Shiso is the same as Extra Years. We add the extract of Shiso herb. Shiso is well known as healthy herb in Japan. Shiso is well known for its killing bacteria effect like ume fruit. It contains β-carotene, B1, B2, B6, Vitamin C/E/K, Calcium, iron etc. It was used for mental health in Chinese medicine. It is said having anti-allergy ability. The taste of Extra Shiso is sweet and fruity but give you some bitterness. Shiso gives distinctive aroma and flavor.

The last one is The Choya Royal Honey. This is unique Umeshu made by honey. We usually use sugar as ingredient. Instead of sugar we choose honey for ageing. Moreover, we add royal jelly which is popular as high nutrition in Asia. Royal jelly is food for queen bees made by young worker bees. It contains over 40 nutrition (many amino acids, vitamins B-complex, minerals etc. People know it is good for beauty of skin, anti-aging. It is also said controls hormone balance and strengthen immune system. If you taste The Choya Royal Honey, you recognize the mild sweetness from honey followed by notes of almond and marzipan. 

extra-years-choya-umeshu_1.jpg

How should we serve Umeshu for mixology purposes, and also what are the culinary uses?

I want to explain you how to drink Choya. In Japan many people drink Choya on the rocks (with ice cubes and also good with crushed ice) or Choya sparkling (with soda). In winter we recommend consumers to mix Choya with hot water or hot tea. You can enjoy Choya in summer and winter.

Recently all around the world Choya is becoming popular for cocktail ingredients. In Italy some cocktail bars make cocktails by Choya. In Europe some bars make popular cocktails such as Choya Spritzer with sparkling wine or prosecco, Choya Gin, and Negroni with Choya. Great bartenders create new cocktails with Choya. I have tried many Choya cocktails and they are amazing.

In Japan we have The Choya Ginza bar in Tokyo. The bar offers many unique cocktails invented by Choya. If you have opportunity to visit Tokyo, please come to our bar. Also, we post several cocktail recipes on our website. Please visit our website and check them. Choya web site : www.choya.com

For culinary uses as one example some people cook Japanese curry and Japanese boiled dishes with Choya. They are very tasty. In Europe some restaurants offer ‘Foie gras’ marinated by Choya. It was amazing taste. I recommend you try it.

In general, Choya is more used for deserts than cooking. Jelly made with Choya is popular in Japan and also good as ingredients for cake and yogurt. We post recipes for cooking on our website as well.

We wish you to discover new recipes with Choya and let us know.

Can you give us some anticipation regarding the future of Choya?

This year Choya celebrates its 110th anniversary

Choya has been developing Umeshu for 65 years. From the point of volume of production, Choya is ranked in top 10 world liqueur producers (Data from the Millionaire's Club & Global drinks). Choya is one of growing companies; however, in Italy and Europe many people have never tried the taste of Choya and even don’t know Choya brand. Our mission is to establish Choya brand globally and more people around the world enjoy Choya. 

Products

Brands