So this morning, my boss asked me if I wanted to do a taste test of a new drink that just went on sale in Japan. I figured this was a pretty sweet assignment to snag for the day, and not just because at that same moment my boss was having some of the other RocketNews24 writers strip down to their underwear and pose for pictures as part of another project, which I would then have an excuse to sidestep.
See, the taste test was of a new carbonated barley-based beverage, and since beer is one of the wells I go to as a writer, I assumed my boss was talking about the world’s most popular alcoholic beverage. But nope, it turns out that there’s now barley soda in Japan, so I was off to the store to try some of this drink that’s devoid of alcohol but surprisingly full of mystery.
One of Japan’s favorite summertime refreshments is mugi-cha, or barley tea. In convenience stores and vending machines across the nation, you’ll find bottles of it chilling and waiting for thirsty customers.
Many of those bottles come from Ito En, a Japanese beverage producer whose teas are especially popular. This year, though, the Tokyo-based company is shaking up its product lineup with a new offering: Mugi Soda.
Whether you’re looking for soft drinks or 3-D maneuver gear, the best place to start is 7-Eleven. Sure enough, my local branch had two neat rows of Mugi Soda occupying the edge of one of its cooler shelves. After tossing 129 yen (US$1.03) into the payment tray, I was back outside with a bottle in my hand.
▼ The color is a bit more golden than barley tea, which tends to be more of a dark brown.
According to the label, a 500-milliliter bottle of Mugi Soda contains 150 calories, which is more than what you’d get from an identically sized serving of tea, but still considerably less than the 210 calories in that volume of Coca-Cola. Just like mugi-cha, there’s also absolutely no caffeine in Mugi Soda.
What there are, however, are plenty of bubbles. Twist open the cap, and your ears are met by the tell-tale aural greeting of a carbonated beverage.
This isn’t carbonated tea, though. It’s a bona fide soda made with both barley and grape fructose. As you raise the bottle to your lips, the aroma is a unique mixture of grainy bitterness and fruity sweetness.
Like the scent, the flavor is completely unprecedented. The first sensation is one of sweetness, but just as you’re thinking it’s a little like a mix of apple and white grape juice, the barley flavor comes on. The grain notes aren’t as strong as with mugi-cha, but they’re definitely there…at least until a tanginess washes over your taste buds.
▼ The Mugi Soda was pleasingly fizzy when first opened and throughout its on-the-street tasting, but by the time I got the bottle back to Rocket News 24’s taste test photo studio in Yokohama, it had unfortunately gone flat
Considering how many different flavors the Mugi Soda runs thorough, it’s impressive that the transition from one to the next feels relatively smooth, and with the sweet, bitter, and tangy boxes checked, it’s likely that, at least for a moment, you’ll find something you like. Still, it’s a little like a drinkable version of a fast-cut movie fight scene, in that everything happens too quickly for your brain to really process what’s going on.
But right about the time you find yourself asking “What the heck did I just drink?”, something sort of miraculous happens. As the Mugi Soda slides down your throat, its cacophony of flavors quiets down, and you’re left with a lingering sweetness that’s tasty but nowhere near as cloying as an ordinary cola. The aftertaste is so refreshing that you’re left wondering how it could possibly be the product of such otherwise discordant flavors. It’s like you hired a bunch of preschoolers to paint your living room, then came home to find they spilled paint all over the floor and scratched the coffee table, but also recreated the Sistine Chapel on your ceiling.
Honestly, though, the sweetness and carbonation mean Mugi Soda isn’t really a substitute for mugi-cha. Instead, it’s exactly what it says on the label: a carbonated soft drink, and one with an unusual ingredient plus an aftertaste that means even if you’re not sure drinking it was the best idea mid-sip, in the end you’ll probably be happy you did.