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Sapporo taps AI to quench Japan’s thirst for cocktails in a can

Written by Nikkei Asia Published on   3 mins read

Japan drinks maker uses tech to cut development time in chase with taste trends.

To keep up with ever-changing trends in the premade cocktail market, Japanese brewer Sapporo Holdings is using artificial intelligence to halve the time it takes to develop new products.

Known as chuhai, Japan’s ready-to-drink market has roughly doubled in the past decade, leading to diverse preferences on flavor, alcohol content, and other factors. Sapporo sees its new product development AI, created in partnership with IBM Japan, as key to quickly delivering what customers want.

For example, to launch a refreshing summer drink, Sapporo marketers can input the AI with a general concept, along with up to 10 flavor descriptors like “sharp” or “sour.” They can also choose one of 170 past Sapporo products to use as a reference, and specify how similar a beverage they want.

The system will generate 100 possible formulations for the product in a matter of seconds, drawing on a database of 1,200 formulations and 700 ingredients tested by Sapporo in the past. Each is rated on a scale of 100 based on how closely it matches the initial description.

“Theoretically, the system can produce over one trillion combinations,” said Soichi Sakashita at Sapporo unit Sapporo Breweries.

While rival Kirin Holdings is testing an AI program to develop new beers, Sapporo will be the first in Japan to use the technology for ready-to-drink cocktails. It is preparing to launch its first product developed with the technology this summer.

Sapporo’s main goal is to speed up product development. The entire process, from market analysis to testing to consumer feedback, currently takes the company at least four to six months.

“We could double the speed of the testing cycle, and eventually triple it once we have the know-how,” Sakashita said.

Suntory Holdings and Kirin currently dominate Japan’s market for ready-to-drink cocktails. But fifth-ranked Sapporo logged a 36% jump in the sales of its mainstay product in 2022 and is eager to build on that momentum.

Only three out of every 1,000 new products are said to succeed in Japan’s hypercompetitive beverage industry. Top players have been focusing more on developing new versions of tried-and-true products — that could greatly benefit from Sapporo’s AI.

The technology could also help product developers think outside the box.

Ready-to-drink cocktails can be made from a variety of different ingredients, from fruits to teas to spices. For example, because the AI is not bound by preconceived notions, it could create a drink that tastes like oranges without using any actual oranges at all.

“We could use unexpected formulas as our secret sauce,” said a Sapporo innovation expert. The AI has also suggested using beer as an ingredient to create a heavier cocktail, instead of vodka and other more commonly used spirits.

Sapporo ultimately hopes to use the technology to involve customers in product development. For example, it could ask customers to send in ideas for new beverages, and use the AI to quickly bring small batches to market.

“The important thing is deciding on a good concept,” Sakashita said.

“Our concept could be an awesome drink, but what’s awesome changes with the times,” he said.

This article first appeared on Nikkei Asia. It has been republished here as part of 36Kr’s ongoing partnership with Nikkei.


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