Hoppy – postwar nostalgia in a bottle
How do you describe Hoppy? The straightforward, technical way, is an ultra-low proof (<1% ABV) malt liquor from Japan. But that doesn’t come close to what Hoppy really is.
Hoppy was created in post-war Japan as a remedy for the rotgut swill that was passing as domestic spirits in the 1940s and 1950s. During the post-war recovery, Japan was a country with a ravaged economy while still needing to drown their sorrows after another hard day at work or another hard day looking for work. The spirits industry was barely regulated and the spirits that the working man could afford were of suspect quality with additives and fortifiers that we can’t begin to imagine drinking today. Can’t speak to Japanese rotgut liquor of the era, but in post-war Korea, soju was often fortified with formaldehyde – perhaps to pickle the body in preparation for burial after adulterated liquor poisoned the drinker?
Basically, the white liquor – korui shochu – of that era was very difficult to drink straight or even on the rocks. Enter Hoppy. Released in 1948, this beer-like malt beverage was mixed with shochu and killed the flavor of the multiply distilled liquor while feeling like you’re drinking beer. Today’s Hoppy comes in “traditional” (yellow beer color) and “black” (about the color of a black lager or brown ale).
Proper preparation is simple. A frozen beer glass, 2 oz of frozen shochu (korui will do, but more on that in a moment), and a quick pour of the bottle of cold Hoppy right down the center of the glass, giving a rich foamy head an mixing the shochu thoroughly with the Hoppy. With the frozen mug, frozen shochu, and chilled Hoppy, it’s just what summer ordered. Refreshing and buzzy.
Recently, I was lucky enough to meet the owner of Hoppy, Mina Ishiwatari, at Wasan in the East Village (108 East 4th Street). She was visiting from Tokyo where she is the 3rd generation owner of this company, which actually started over a hundred years ago as a confectionary (candy maker) and soda company. During the economic boom of the 1980s, Hoppy fell out of favor, but under Ms. Ishiwatari’s guidance, it has seen a resurgence as the “lost decade” survivors look for a working man’s drink to remember a simpler time when Japan was full of hope and a very bright future. On my first few visits to Tokyo, I’d never seen Hoppy advertised or in bars, but on a trip earlier this year, I saw Hoppy available in lots of izakaya, especially those with a post-war Showa era vibe.
Recently released in the U.S., Hoppy can be found at a few izakaya around NYC and other major cities with plans to expand nationwide if Americans develop a taste for the drink. The earliest NYC adopter of Hoppy was Izakaya Azasu (49 Clinton Street) in the Lower East Side, where they actually have a shochu freezing machine (it also freezes beer mugs instantly). At Azasu, while drinking with a friend visiting from Japan, I discovered that Hoppy is a perfect match with kokuto (brown sugar) shochu. I’d previously been drinking it with mugi shochu, but learned from my friend that the toji of Lento kokuto shochu actually drinks Hoppy +Lento as his everyday after-work beverage of choice. If it’s good enough for the guy who makes the shochu, it’s definitely good enough for me.
Having tried it this way, the black sugar shochu flavor mixes beautifully with the maltiness of Hoppy Traditional. For a richer, earthier experience, drink it with Hoppy Black. The upside of drinking Hoppy with honkaku (authentic) shochu rather than korui shochu is that it’s got a much richer flavor. The downside is that the bar is likely to charge you a couple dollar premium since traditional honkaku shochu is about twice the price of korui shochu. Nevertheless, it’s worth it for the more elegant flavors. Either way it’s the perfect antidote for the summer heat that’ll be hitting in NYC soon.