Nagano, nestled high in the Japanese alps, is best known for its stunning views, onsen-soaking snow monkeys and for hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics. The area is also ideal for apple growing, so it was only a matter of time until cider production came underway.
With its diurnal shifts, free-flowing water and a long growing season, Nagano, which lies at an altitude of 371m, boasts the perfect conditions for apple growing. In Japan, apples are usually produced to be eaten fresh, or to be decorated and given as gifts – not to be made into cider. Indeed, cider has only started to be sold in Japan in the last 10 years or so. With the impressive rise of cider’s popularity in Japan in recent years, Nagano’s longstanding apple growing is coming to the fore – but it took a Scot with a passion for cider to help push it forward.
Lee Reeve, a Scotsman who moved to Japan by way of England, saw the potential of Nagano’s ciders and has started to introduce them to consumers around the world through his magazine, inCiderJapan, with plans to put Nagano and Japan on the world’s stage as major cider players. Carrie Dykes spoke to Reeve, alongside other key figures on Japan’s cider scene, about the growing demand for cider in Japan and Nagano’s place in the story.
Apple trees are thought to have grown in Central Asia for millennia and had spread to West Asia and China by around 2500 BC, reaching Europe by 2000 BC. But the fruit only arrived in Japan much later, “Apples landed in Japan around 1874.” says Tsuyoshi Takemura, of Nagano’s VinVie cider brewery, adding: “Sweet, juicy apples were a fruit that gave a vivid impression to Japanese at the time.” Widespread cultivation of apples in Japan began in the Meiji Period (1868–1912) and their popularity soon led to bulk overseas exports. The Fuji apple, now popular worldwide, was first cultivated in Fujisaki, Japan, in the late 1930s. It has a Brix (sugar) level of 15-18 Brix, making it the sweetest apple around.
Half a decade later, Japan’s apples started to be turned into cider. “In the 1930s, 1940s and 1990s, ciders flourished, but other alcoholic beverages were overwhelmingly popular and ciders did not spread widely,” says Takemura. “However, since around 2006, ciders have been gaining attention as an alternative to beer. In particular, it is popular for its crisp and sharp taste that goes well with meals.” The changing tastes of Japan’s youth have also played their part: “The influence of young people’s desire for low alcohol and the popularity of sparkling drinks has brought ciders to the forefront.”
Imported ciders from across the pond sparked an interest among locals in the 2010s that greased the wheels for cider makers nearby. “Imported cider as an alcoholic drink goes back to 2011, but it was mostly popular among expats,” says Reeve. “Ever since 2018, with more domestic cider makers promoting their products and a little help from inCiderJapan, cider is becoming more popular with regular alcohol drinkers. The reception has been great and is getting better.”
Before local production really took off, bars like Full Monty in Yokohama had been introducing the category to the greater Tokyo area. “Full Monty has played a major part in introducing cider in Japan,” says UK-born Clive Poole, the proprietor of Full Monty British Pub and Cider House. “We’ve been pushing it since we first opened 16 years ago. We started off with just the one – that was all that was available back then – Blackthorn Dry Cider [a product of the UK].” Full Monty now carries about 70-80 ciders – mainly from the UK, US, France and Spain, but they also reserve spots for local ciders. “The main cider we get from Nagano is from Son of The Smith – four young guys who really think outside the box and produce some very exciting ciders,” says Poole.
Marie Tanaka opened Wine Styles in Tokyo’s Okachimachi district in 2009. Wine Styles is a niche drinks shop that caters to natural wines and global ciders, with a particular focus on British products. The cider selection has grown exponentially since Tanaka began importing English ciders five years ago. Now, her range includes an array of ciders from around the world, with an effort to feature local producers.“The Nagano ciders we carry are Ringo School Cidery, VinVie and Ringo-ya Suda but I also carry ciders from all over Japan, as well as other parts of the world,” says Tanaka.
While cider production is still new, it’s thought that the dedication and precision the Japanese give to their ventures will help to close the gap between Japan and longer established regions. “I do believe that like Japanese whisky this will inevitably be the trajectory for Japanese cider,” says Reeve.
Nagano has been a major apple growing region for many years. But recently, bad weather has put pressure on apple producers to be more resourceful, making cider production a new form of income. Some farms have begun to rework their orchards to include cider apples. “There are typhoons and late frost due to abnormal weather in Japan. Most apple farms in Japan grow apples to eat fresh and look great for gifts. However, bad weather causes damaged apples,” says Takemura, making it more difficult to sell apples in the traditional way. “At present, a few farms have been converted to cider apple orchards. Cider apple cultivation is not yet major but is starting to grow.”
Additionally, new apples are being made to fit the exact climatic needs of the region. Nagano cidery Son of the Smith has even bred their own apple called Asama Cucina. “While our two CEOs are third and fourth generation apple farmers in Nagano, we only started growing cider apples about four years ago. We are also breeding new cider apples,” says Takuro Ikeuchi, cider maker for Son of the Smith. “Our orchard was hit by a typhoon last year [which limited apple selection] but we made a hopped cider using culinary apples like Shinano Sweet called Pickers Delight – the hops add complexity.”
The economic impact of these changes will be more prevalent down the line. “In Japan‘s rural areas, the population is ageing and more people are quitting farming. These lost orchards can be turned into cider apple orchards,” says Takemura. “Cider apples are easier to grow than culinary. By growing relatively easy-to-cultivate varieties into cider in this way, the orchard can be reused and employment can be created.”
These changes inspired some apple farmers not to just make cider as revenue, but as a craft and a study of the unique terroir Nagano has to offer. “In the beginning, cider production [in Nagano] had to do with the concentration of apple farms and wineries – the highest in the country,” says Reeve. “Later it had to do with the attitudes of the local apple growers and the fact the younger generation were interested in cider and cider making as a way to revitalize their region and economy. The reception has been unbelievably positive and we have some very interesting and exciting projects happening later this year as a result.”
Examples of the innovative cider projects are VinVie’s Paper Wasp cider which is made with bee’s yeast, Farm & Cidery Kaneshige’s keeved cider, and the sparkling cider made by Marukane Cidery, which uses a blend of sour and sweet apples. Most thrilling might be the collaboration between Son of the Smith and Reverend Nat’s in Portland, Oregon, in which harvested wild yeast from Nagano orchards were blended into a mix of Japanese apples grown in Oregon, resulting in a wild and complex cider that was introduced at the Fuji to Hood Festival in Portland.
Reeve, having grown up in England and Scotland, has been a cider fan for ages. “Cider was my first alcoholic drink. By accident, mind you, but the impression lasted,” says Reeve. “I love the dichotomies of cider – its simplicity versus complexity. The purity versus various styles. I love the connection with the earth, with the farmer. I also love how cider bridges the gap between wine and beer. Moreover, I love sharing my passion with others, especially when it involves pouring a cider for someone and watching their mind explode. There’s nothing more satisfying.”
Reeve saw the potential of regional Japanese ciders, such as Son of the Smith, VinVie and Kikusui among others. He also noted the ease with which the category could fit into the Japanese cuisine and lifestyle. In 2017, Lee Reeve created the business and magazine, inCiderJapan, which aims to introduce ciders from both Nagano (and all over the world) to consumers – starting in the greater Tokyo area and moving across other regions in Japan. The mission now is to put Nagano and Japan as a whole on the world stage as a major cider player.
In addition to consistent features on Nagano in the magazine, Reeve is Nagano prefecture’s official international media consultant with regards to cider and is now embarking on a three-year government-subsidised initiative to create a ‘Tourism through Cider’ campaign. “I’ve gone from being completely laughed at to giving monthly seminars across the globe,” says Reeve.”I am also partnered with the Japanese Cider Master Association as their media and international relations unit. In addition, my company has also become an importer and distributor of international ciders.”
Organising the upcoming ‘Global Cider Connect’ project, which involves a six-country cider collaboration with Nagano cider makers and representing Nagano prefecture at Ciderlands – an international network of cider makers whose current locations are all in Europe – are just some of the ways he is propelling the region forward. “I started publishing the magazine in 2017 and we’re now working on the ninth issue. We’re distributed all across the country as well as a few other places outside Japan,” says Reeve. “Last year, I launched Japan’s only cider-dedicated online shop, Japan Cider Market. This year, our most ambitious project is Global Cider Connect. It’s still a bit of a secret now, but check back with me later on in the year for details.”
Reeve’s efforts to boost tourism to Nagano through cider are contingent on more cideries and orchards opening up to the public. “In Nagano, VinVie, Kikusui and Son of the Smith are among the few that you can actually go and visit,” says Reeve.
Open-air cider events are popular in Japan, in addition to traditional taproom visits. “My favourite is St.Cousair,” says Tanaka. “They welcome visitors and they also have a big cider event called Iizuna Cidre Garden during Golden Week in May. People can enjoy a cider while looking at the beautiful scenery from the garden.” Poole agrees that Son of the Smith is off to a great start in terms of encouraging tourism: “Visitors can also go to The Source Diner which is where Son of the Smith holds a number of events.” Ikeuchi adds that they host DJ events, as well as cider pairings with chef-led dinners.
Food and cider pairing has been focussed on as an important way to educate Japanese consumers on the flexibility of culinary matches within the nation’s cuisine. “Japanese ciders are easy to drink and lower in alcohol than wines so they are easy to pair,” says Tanaka. Poole serves a mixture of English-style pub grub and traditional Japanese food at his pub and cider house and notes how well cider pairs with both. “Cider with Japanese cuisine pairs amazingly well,” says Poole. “Yakiniku and yakitori are personal favorites.”
In order to spread the word of Nagano’s cider offering, Reeve explains that tourism and education must go hand in hand. “The traction is there, but there is also much more that needs to be done,” says Reeve. “There are still a lot of unknowns about cider in Japan and because of the growing popularity, some misinformation has already begun to sprout. Educating the public about what it is and how it can be enjoyed, as well as retailers and bar and restaurant owners about how to sell it. But hey, never a dull day!”
With Reeve at the helm, it won’t be long before the rest of the world can enjoy a Nagano cider at home.