Crushing it: Japanese cider soars to new heights in collaboration with foreign partners

The Japan News
Five bottles of cider produced by five cideries in the Minami-Shinshu area in collaboration with foreign partners are seen at a promotion event in the Ginza NAGANO shop in Tokyo on May 7.

Japan is known for high-quality fruit that is ideal when eaten fresh, with some of it exported as luxury fare, but the business of fermenting such fruit into premium beverages is still developing. In recent years, the quality of Japanese wine has greatly improved, and it has been used to entertain foreign leaders visiting Japan. Cider, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented apple juice, has also become better in quality, as the number of cideries in the nation has been on the rise.

The Minami-Shinshu area in southern Nagano Prefecture, home to many apple farmers, is one of the major production bases of cider in Japan. In 2020, five cideries in the area began collaborating with cideries in Australia, Denmark, Norway, Spain and the United States to develop new cider products under a project named Global Cider Connect to improve their production quality.

The Japan News
Information about the collaboration between five Minami-Shinshu area cideries and their respective foreign partners is shown on a screen at a promotional event.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, they have experienced some difficulties in the project. Online meetings have been the primary means of communication. However, their efforts have finally come to fruition this month, with the five cideries in Minami-Shinshu launching their new products, which taste different from the cider they had been producing, through the help of their respective foreign partners.

Best match for yakiniku

Kikusui Brewery Co., based in Minami-Shinshu’s main city of Iida, has partnered with Spanish cidery Zapiain. Founded in 1944 as a Japanese-style sake brewery, Kikusui has long focused on dry and light-tasting cider since it began making cider in 2016. The new cider created by Kikusui, however, aims to be the perfect match for meat dishes.

The reason for the new taste is a characteristic of the city’s residents: They are avid carnivores. A survey showed that the number of yakiniku barbecue restaurants per capita in the city is the highest in the country, and the city calls itself “the best yakiniku town in Japan.”

“We could make rich and flavorful cider by adding concentrated juice called ‘apple honey,’” Kikusui production manager Toru Takada said at a May 7 promotion event in Tokyo to mark the launch of the new cider products. The event was held at Ginza NAGANO, a shop operated by the prefectural government.

According to Kikusui, the apple honey is a product made by Zapiain with its unique method, and the Japanese brewery imported it from Spain.

VinVie, a Nagano Prefecture cidery in the town of Matsukawa, has joined forces with Australia’s Willie Smith’s Cider Makers. As the cidery also produces wine, it aimed for a cider “that is made like wine and can be drunk like beer,” said Atsushi Sato, VinVie’s sales manager. To overcome the weakness of cider made only from apples grown to be eaten fresh, the cidery put uncrushed apples into cider tanks to add a complex and pleasant aroma, according to Sato.

The Japan News
A tank of apples at a VinVie’s cidery is shown on a screen at a promotional event in Tokyo, illustrating part of the cider-making process.

The project has been supported by British native Lee Reeve, who moved to Japan and runs a company called inCiderJapan that imports and sells cider and also publishes an eponymous cider-focused magazine.

According to Reeve, the quality and complexity of domestic cider products in Japan were lacking and there weren’t enough good imported ciders that consumers would want, around the time when he launched the magazine in 2017. To improve the quality of the beverages, he believed — based on his experience in the craft beer industry — that collaboration between cideries was important. It was the people of Minami-Shinshu who accepted his idea.

According to the sake and wine promotion office of the Nagano prefectural government, the number of cider makers in the prefecture, which includes conventional sake breweries and wineries, has been increasing and is believed to have reached more than 40.

The Japan News
Products from five Minami-Shinshu cideries released this month have different color tones.

Tourism resource

Japan has a relatively short history of producing cider compared to Europe and the United States, so the International Apple & Cider Association, based in Iida, is working to connect farmers, cideries and the tourism industry in the Minami-Shinshu area, with the aim of uniting the local community to make cider into a tourism resource.

When the Linear Shinkansen line opens in the future, a new station will be built in the Minami-Shinshu area. Then, the travel time between Tokyo and Iida by Shinkansen would be about 45 minutes, cutting hours from the current journey time. The local tourism industry sees this as an opportunity and hopes to make visiting cideries and enjoying cider and the food that goes with it the highlight of tourism in the area.

In addition to the Global Cider Connect project, the association has been administering an exam to certify a “pomme de liaison” — a qualified person who promotes ciders. So far, more than 160 people have been certified since 2014.

The area is no exception to the trend of international tourism having largely dried up due to the pandemic. However, preparations for the recovery of tourist numbers are progressing steadily. “We hope many tourists will come here in pursuit of cider. That is our goal,” said Takaichi Goto, president of the association.