Taking inspiration from another culture can be a life-changing decision. When Stephanie Buttery travelled to Japan, she immersed herself in the local drinking culture and returned to the UK with a goal of starting her own business. As the founder of the premium soft drinks brand, Chu-Lo, Buttery has created a drink inspired by Japanese chuhai.
After meeting Buttery at the Doki Doki Festival in Manchester, I wanted to hear the Chu-Lo story and what motivated her to start her own business.
Great to feature you in Yamato Magazine Stephanie and it was good to talk at the Doki Doki Festival. The Chu-Lo drink range is definitely eye catching. What’s the story behind the drink and what inspired you to create it?
In 2018 I spent 10 months away from home deployed with the Royal Navy, 4 months of the 10 were spent in Japan, which is where I fell in love with the Japanese people, the culture and the drink chuhai.
When I got home, I tried to import it for myself but no one was brining it in. I found out that this was because of import issues related to Fukoshima in 2011, so I decided to make a copy for myself.
I like the fact that the name takes inspiration from the traditional Japanese chuhai drink. What steps did you take to ensure that Chu-Lo differed from chuhai in the early stages?
In the early stages I wanted to create a chuhai! I then realised you need a significant amount of money and some licenses to do that. When I researched further, I came to the conclusion that the UK drinks market doesn’t need another canned cocktail, but instead may like a soft drink.
I wanted to make sure it tasted like a chuhai which is where the unique sour hit flavour comes from. Some of the best feedback I’ve received is from others who have been to Japan, who say it tastes just like it. I hope in future to bring out a chuhai version.
Why do you think chuhai is so popular in Japan?
Chuhai has an amazing history, and I think it has a place in people’s hearts because of that. It started when the quality of shochu began to deteriorate following rationing Post WW2. To make it more palatable the Japanese added lemon juice and soda water, making the highball.
The big boom in popularity came in the 80s when all the different flavours started to explode onto the scene. It’s now served in every bar in Japan and is the ultimate in customisable drinks where you can choose your fruit and strength of shochu.
How did you settle on the different flavours and what was that process like?
So, I love whisky. When I found myself in an izakaya in Japan drinking their whole top shelf and taking notes, I saw that the locals were drinking something else. I asked what it was and got my first taste of a chuhai. It was amazing and I began to seek it out as my late afternoon drink of choice.
I soon found out that there were other flavours, and the shochu differed in every region! Having found this out I began adding different flavours to my notes. I have a beaten-up notebook which has all the ideas and characteristics written down.
When I left Japan I gave the notes to a flavour lab in Blackpool, who made various samples based on what I’d sent. This went back and forth a few times until they got the perfect replica of a chuhai.
I also like how dynamic the art is on the cans. I heard you worked with Top League Brand Design to help with the branding. What made you decide to work with them?
The designer at Top League is the brother of a friend who has always done incredible artwork. He designs posters for my friend’s rugby team and has an incredibly diverse portfolio, but you can tell that they are all for the same team. It’s that concept which won Chu-Lo an award in design innovation at the International Drinks Expo.
The idea is that the red stripe will endure whilst the wallpapers change and evolve based on what is going on, or what is popular. We are looking at launching a new design especially for the Olympics in Tokyo later this year.
We also want to make the cans interactive and appealing towards anyone into anime and gaming so will be calling out on social media for can designs. The ultimate vision is to become for gaming what Red Bull is for Extreme Sports and the best way to do that is to bring our customers into the design process and make it theirs.
What were the biggest challenges you had to overcome to make Chu-Lo a reality?
Financing a passion project is always difficult. I had saved £10k whilst I was away and was happy to lose that in the pursuit of making my vision come alive. Once I worked out that the idea was viable and worth trying I applied for a government loan through Virgin Start Ups, which gave me the boost to make the cans and start selling. Cashflow is a challenge for any start up, but the initial injection to get off the ground is the hardest.
What types of flavours can we expect to see from Chu-Lo in the future?
We have done a lot of markets and trade shows in the last 6 months and have always asked what people want to see. So far the common trend is towards watermelon and grape. One of my favourites from Japan was Shiso Sour, which is a flavour I hope to bring in the next year. I’m open to suggestions so please reach out on social media!
Where can people shop to buy the drink when they are out and about?
Chu-Lo is always available on Amazon through our website, and if you’re in Manchester several places are stocking it, from board gaming stores to Ramen houses. Check out Cocktail Beer Ramen and Bun, it’s a game changer! We are also in talks with a few Japanese chain restaurants so watch this space.
Where would you recommend drinking for people who are visiting Japan for the first time?
Golden gai bars in Shinjuku are a lot of fun. They are tiny bars around town which only fit a handful of people but each has its own personality. You can be in a mad 80s bar one second, then head into an anime bar and wrap up with a ski chalet theme. A brilliant and bonkers night out. There are also bars all over Japan called 300 bars, where you can get really cheap beers and cocktails if you are on a budget.
Outside of drinks, what are some of your favourite aspects of Japanese culture?
The people of Japan are fantastic, they seem to have a great sense of humour and serenity. Towards the end of my time in Japan I was able to speak a little Japanese and the response was brilliant. They take joy out of everything and will do anything they can to make you feel welcome.
What are some of your best tips for people who are thinking of setting up their own start-up company?
Fail fast, fail cheap. You need to prove the need for your product exists. I started on market stalls in Manchester and going around independent businesses asking if they would buy my product. These are free ways of proving concept, and people will always give you an opinion.
Want to try Chu-Lo for yourself? Check out the online store and see what you think!