In mid May 2017, just as the apple blossom began to confetti the grass beneath my feet in Somerset, I left for Tokyo and another cider adventure! I’ve never been before but having admired both the importance Japanese give to the natural world and their significantly different philosophy about life since I was very young, I was excited. Essentially I had been invited to learn more about what was happening in Nagano - one of Japans primary apple growing and cider producing regions, but also asked to talk about my ongoing worldwide cider findings at a cider association meeting.
Cider Hunting: Japan.
Tokyo & Food
My first official visit was to Bar Eclipse in Kanda, Tokyo - which boasts a good range of cider from both Japan and France. I had asked bar owner Tatsuro Fujii, to try and help me discover what typical Japanese food I though might suit the ciders he wanted me to try, so he had prepared several things for me but first put me to work making and cooking Takoyaki - a typical bar snack that was essentially minced prawn and ginger cooked in a ball shaped batter mixture (whats not to love!) Delicious and a suitable accompaniment for session drinking but lacking in the characteristic delicacy that so much Japanese food has. I also tried Oyaki - a doughier, filled dumpling, Nasu-miso oyaki (aubergine and miso mix) and also Fuki-Miso oyaki (wild grass and miso.) I later learned that Fuki is a slightly bitter but delicious wild grass also known as Butterbur.
Tsukemono is pickled veg and no meal in Japan is complete without some making an appearance. The slightly sourer ones really seemed to complement the ciders I was trying but I have a feeling that may change as their ciders develop.
Another Japanese classic is Motsuni (tripe) and on one occasion I think I tried 4 different tripes in the same meal - all of which were prepared in slightly different ways and very, very tasty. In many ways, they reminded me of andouille I have had at cider tastings in France.
Above all, my favourite snacks to eat were Himono (literally ‘dried things’) and for a city that eats more fish than just about anywhere I the planet - it has to be done. I was perfect with the cider - as various fish dishes are in many parts of the world. The Japanese have a particular way with preparing fish - himono is a very simple traditional concept of air drying and makes the perfect accompaniment to cider.
Ninety minutes in to my evening at Bar Eclipse, I realised I had been ‘pimped out’ as an attraction for local cider enthusiasts who the wily Fujii-san had already charged good money so they might sit and drink with me at pre-arranged time slots. They certainly enjoyed watching me try hard not to ruin their takoyaki. Some hours later, I met British expats Clive Poole and Lee Reeve who run a bar in Yokohama called ‘Full Monty’. Both of whom are big cider fans and are doing their bit to support and promote real cider in the country. They're plotting a host of cider related festivals, competitions and tastings - as well as launching Japans first cider specific magazine (keep an eye out for ‘inCider Japan’ if you want to know more.)
Mitsuya and/or The French Connection
I was aware from previous contact with Japanese cider producers of the preoccupation Japan has with French cidre - much like Whisky from Scotland, but I never understood why French cidre particularly. To the French, Calvados holds much greater esteem than Cider, to the degree that French cider producers are arguably the least boastful and outgoing of cider producers anywhere because cider simply gets left out of the conversation. I once asked a Normandy distiller something about his cider - he just shrugged pleasantly and smiled because he didn't understand why I wasn't asking about Calvados.
Anyway, alongside a potted history, here are my theories as to why cider in Japan is known as cidre, not cider. As ever, time has interwoven them which never makes for simple interpretation, but I've done my best!
Between 1866 and 1875, apples were being introduced to Japan from USA with a view to fostering a new apple market. By 1901, there was an alcoholic drink known as 'Ringo-Shu' ('apple liquor') - the concept of which one might assume also came from USA as demand for apple varieties and ideas increased.
The plot thickens significantly when you realise the most famous brand of 'cider' in Japan, then and today, is 'Mitsuya Cider' but its not cider as we know it. Mitsuya is actually a mainstream carbonated soft drink that is very popular with kids all over Japan and has been on sale since 1884. Its a household name you can find it in any supermarket - so to the Japanese 'cider' has only ever been a pale, flavored, non-alcoholic soda type drink- much like lemonade.
By 1944 the apple industry had increased significantly and when Japanese sake producers were forced to find alternatives to rice during rationing, one particular producer, Osamu Yoshii from Hirosaki City, Aomori Prefecture started manufacturing 'Ringo-Shu'. By 1953 it was popular enough for him to travel to Europe on a 2 month tour where he learned about cidre whilst in France. The enterprising Yoshii-san then received the support of Asahi Breweries, established "Asahi Cider Co., Ltd." and by 1955 had invited Michelle Vielle over from France as a technical advisor for three months. As the biggest and probably oldest brand of 'cidre' in Japan - the French connection has well and truly stuck.
So far as I can tell, all influence for cider in Japan has since then been exclusively French and still is to this day, although, I observed a very recent low level awareness of other other cider producing nations making headway. During my visit I saw clear evidence of a West Coast US influence, but nothing from anywhere else. Literally every bottle is labeled as cidre.
Most producers were unsuccessfully attempting (or had previously tried - and given up) keeving in the French style. Sadly the apples varieties they are currently using and the orcharding methods they employ render their 'cider fruit' is totally unsuitable for the keeving process. The high tannin -traditional European cider varieties grown in Germany, Spain, France and UK - combined with a different approach to apple production methods (or lack of them in many cases!), creates a juice with very different chemical and biological make up. Much of that difference is fundamental to successful a keeve. Even the most experienced of keevers will agree that even then, it can be tricky and occasionally goes awry.
Japanese apples are still mostly geared towards the eating market and growers tend to focus on low quantities of higher quality, large and perfect looking apples - which are very giftable (the Japanese LOVE to exchange gifts - constantly!) As such most of them would be considered unsuitable for cider production - at least from a European/Western perspective. Not only are they very low in tannin but they grow a fairly limited amount of varieties - mainly sweet eating fruit. I found only one producer who has some very young European cider varieties being grown for trail - which I am VERY excited about and can't wait to try as cider in the future. Most growers grow Fuji, and other varieties including Shinano Gold, Gun-ma Meigetsu, Tsugaru and Jonathan.
Three quarters of my way into the trip and I was convinced there weren't even any wild, indigenous apples with much in the way of tannin to offer. Much like wine, tannins are considered a fundamental ingredient for anyone that wants to make interesting cider.
The Kousaka (pronounced ko-u-sa-ka) was a small, hard apple that arrived in the 9th Century from China - and as such was quite distict from any commercial modern varietes. The moment I tried a cider made from it I was interested in finding out more about it because it had more tannin in than any other juice I'd had. Upon asking, I was told it was a local apple by historians who work at the fantastic Apple Museum in Iizuna (which is particularly exciting and a must for anyone serious about the regions history with apples) suspect it may be good for cider production - I concur. It used to be a very popular all over Japan from 1700 as it was considered an important apple enough as offerings to the Buddha, the shogun and various samurai overlords. During the 19th Century, as trade opened up to with the world, larger sweeter apples were introduced and gained popularity. As a slightly weak tree prone to some disease, Kosaka was relegated for use as an ornamental variety and subsequently admired only for its blossom until it one day, it disappeared completely and was thought lost forever, until an apple specialist from Iizuna, Mr.Yonedawa, discovered a single tree and propagated it. His son continues as his work as 'caretaker' of the variety today but there are only a dozen farms in the area that grow it - and only those that he considers worthy!
The cider make using Kousaka was one of the most interesting I had tried on my trip. Another, was a completely different beast made for/by ASTTAL - a cooperative of local apple farmers and producers. It is made using techniques more familiar to traditional European cidermakers - which completely surprised me as the 'winemaker' for the co-operative, the most humble Mr Murata, has never tried European cider or learned about our methods. When asked why he took such a unique approach he told me
"I've been fermenting different fruits for various people, for a very long time - that particular approach is how I felt I would get the best out of them, it feels like the right way to do it".
Mr Murata, my new hero, clearly has some extensive skills and a lifetime of experience. His unique approach involves macerating the fruit for a week before pressing, leaving pressed juice another week before pitching a yeast and the whole process us done in open fermenters - with no sulphites added at any stage! What we were drinking was a very tasty complex, pure, juicy and satisfying cider that had positive characteristics like no other I tried in Japan.
One of my last 'official' duties was attending the Nagano Cider Collection in Iida (pronounced ee-da) much like a tasting salon anywhere it was help in a hotel function room in town, the media and dignitaries were in attendance and it was very well attended and 20-30 cidermakers were plying their wares. I was asked to join the Mayor and his guests for a special lunch ((which was amazing) and I had the opportunity to ask him when he intended to make the role of an apple and cider officer an official one in his administration. He was bemused and seemed to pause long enough to be considering the idea.
The following morning was my last official day of the trip. I presented to official members and attendees and requested to talk about talking about cider producing nations worldwide. 90 minutes isn't really enough to scratch the surface - particularly when using photos and when you encourage Q&A - which I always prefer so we whistled through it.
I was lucky enough to be invited over and have my trip organised by Ms. Aiko Yazawa a true ambassador for Japanese cider internationally. Like many of us passionate ciderheads, she also has a day job. She hosts a website Kokusai Ringo Cider Shinkoukai (Pommelier Association) that aims to promote international cider to the Japanese audience. Not only is she kind and hard working, she even cooked some my seafood alive for me. A thousand thankyous again Aiko-san!
Producer/grower visits and places of interest:
These growers and producers were all on my itinerary, I found them very welcoming and are well worth a visit.
Miyajima Apple Farm
I was lucky to have some of the best Fixers in Japan who even had me planting a rice paddy with 30 school kids. Ken even fed me raw horse and bee larvae at one stage too! They are KanKanShizenmura and you can contact them in English here > [email protected]
Photos and more
I have far more history about apples in Japan, as well as other ciders I believe worthy of a mention - all of which will have to wait for the second edition of "Worlds Best Cider" - which we're currently thinking about. I have some travel photography of Japan, and also my CIDER JAPAN PHOTOGRAPHY GALLERY.
For more about cider in general all my cider related content is tagged 'cider'