© Evan Sung
Right around the time that PBR was making a trendy comeback in the US, Hoppy, a cheap, nearly nonalcoholic beer was doing the same in Japan. First introduced in 1948 as a substitute for beer, which was prohibitively expensive at the time, Hoppy is a sparkling beverage made with malt, barley and water that clocks in at around 0.8 percent ABV. Hard to imagine how something so weak could satisfy people’s desire for beer, right? That’s because Hoppy isn’t drunk by itself. It is spiked with shochu, a neutral spirit made from barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat or rice.
The beer substitute had a lot of success until the 1960s, when the Japanese economy improved. Hoppy hung around, primarily as a old man’s drink, until about 10 years ago when the president, Mina Ishiwatari, the original creator’s granddaughter, started marketing the drink to a younger, hipper generation. Now, Hoppy is back in Japan and it’s making its way into the US.
There are only a few places serving Hoppy stateside right now. One of them is Azasu, the new casual izakaya from Yopparai owners Gaku and Christy Shibata, where it is poured into a frosty mug over a shot of slushy, frozen shochu. In Japan, the shochu is chilled down but not completely frozen. Taking the shochu to the next level of cold creates an ultra-cool, refreshing drink that tastes how you wish a light beer tasted: The first sip is sweet foam, then there’s a hit of icy shochu, which floats to the top, then the flavor of crisp, thirst-quenching beer. “The people who try it really like it,” Christy says. “A friend of mine tried it and days after told me, ‘I keep dreaming about Hoppy.’”
Right now, the classic Hoppy drink is the only way to drink Hoppy at Azasu but there are talks of adding it to the restaurant’s frozen yuzu shochu drink to make a sort of Japanese beergarita—which sounds like it could be an icy home run.