Choices for Japan’s Cider Industry

Nat West of Reverend Nats Hard Cider

The following is an article by Nat West, owner of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider, that was originally published in Issue 7 of inCiderJapan magazine.

Despite being a world-class apple growing country known for its extremely high-quality fruit and small-scale agricultural practices, Japan has a relatively nascent cider culture. But in nearly every other apple growing region in the world, a robust cider culture can be found. From where I’m sitting, swirling and sipping a cider made in Japan, it’s unclear which direction the Japanese cider industry will follow. Are there other cider regions with similar characteristics to Japan that may provide insight into what to expect? I see three paths that Japanese cidermakers could take, each having unique production constraints, customer expectations, packaging choices, and marketing opportunities to find success.

The strong historical tradition of small-scale agriculture interspersed among and nearby dense population centers leads me to think that Japan’s cider scene could look like those of New York’s Finger Lakes Region and England’s West Country, with many rural and small-scale producers selling nearly all of their volume to locals and agri-tourists along a “cider trail.” When I do cider tastings at the world-famous Hood River Fruit Loop in Oregon, I am continually struck at the impulse of agri-tourists to leave the orchards and farms that they visit with no money in their wallet. Supporting local farmers is always a feel-good experience for them. Cider made in this fashion is necessarily highly seasonal since it relies on locally-grown fruit. Customers expect that these ciders are exclusively made using apples grown nearby, and by the producers themselves. This reliance on using their own fruit means that a grower-cidermaker must make the entire year’s supply in a single season, or store apples (or juice), which can significantly drive up production costs. These production constraints are very real, and can be a severe impediment to growth and success.

Customers of farm-based ciders generally expect their cider to taste like apples, but are always very excited to drink other local produce as well. Take for instance the rural American “fruit wine” segment, which while small, contains a wide variety of offerings such as dandelion, peach, walnut and berry wines. Wine purists may scoff at these beverages as unsophisticated, but there are hundreds of family-run farms in America that generate a lot of revenue making these kinds of “unsophisticated” foods and beverages using their own produce.

Producers of farm-based ciders are well advised to remember that tourists come to farms to pay for an experience and take home a memento of their trip. They are generally very tolerant of high prices for bottled cider. There is never any competition “on the shelf” to compare prices, and customers know that they cannot get farm-based ciders back in the city. Because of this captive audience, many farm cideries only sell large bottles. If a customer is only going to buy one bottle, why charge ¥1000 for a half liter bottle when you can get ¥2500 for a one liter bottle?

At every opportunity, farm-based cideries should promote their connection to the land, offering rural experiences to up-sell customers beyond a bottle of cider. Weddings, you-pick apples in the fall, regular farm visits as the seasons change, camping and hikes, outdoor cooking, nature education, connections and collaborations with other farmers, and a strong identity as hailing from a particular agricultural region are all opportunities to differentiate themselves and build a strong brand for farm-based cideries.

Many cidermakers in Virginia, Vermont and New Hampshire spend much of their days trying to convince wine drinkers that cider is wine, and should be held in the same regard. Like wine, high prices on large bottles, the highlighting of specific vintages and varietals and a focus on terroir are characteristics of these ciders. With a few exceptions, both customers and restaurant sommeliers have been largely resistant to this perspective.

Cidermakers who proclaim that cider is wine source apples with the same intentions as those who buy grapes: varietals and growers matter. Heirloom and cider-specific apple varieties apples are selected and blended together to make a cider with varying levels of acidity, complexity, alcohol and flavor. It is rarely required that the cidermaker grow all of their own apples; it is just as well to highlight partner growers in their ciders.

The varieties that they use aren’t widely available in the open market, and always cost many times more to grow or acquire than commodity apples. So, much like farm-based cideries, wine-style cidermakers must plan well in advance to source, ferment and store a year’s worth of cider. The implications on cash flow for a business like this can be severe.

To sell wine-style cider, makers must speak the language of wine. They find progressive wine bars that already sell grape wine from the same region, and are generally limited to selling their ciders only in the area where the apples are grown. Their ciders are sold in wine bottle sizes (typically 750ml) and reflect wine prices of ¥2000 and up. Successful wine-style cidermakers focus on storytelling about the cider: growing region and terroir. Customers of wine-style ciders can be very discerning, so education is crucial to encourage them to buy ciders with high price tags and relatively low alcohol levels, when compared to wine. Experimentation with ingredients such as hops and cherries, even if locally grown, or with processes such as yeast selection and barrel aging may alienate customers who want nothing but the fruit to shine through. As a result, wine-style ciders are necessarily limited in the spectrum of possible flavor profiles.

While the first two paths lean heavily on the agricultural traditions of the nation, some Japanese cidermakers might decide to pull away from the countryside and hitch a ride on the already established craft beer train, much like we see in America’s Pacific Northwest states of Oregon and Washington. It is no coincidence that Oregon has the nickname of “Beervana” is also the largest cider market in the US. The cravings of many beer drinkers in Oregon rotate between various styles, including cider. A typical Portland beer geek equally appreciates the light body, high acid and diverse set of possible ingredients in cider and heavy-bodied, roasty imperial stouts because every drink has an ideal time and place.

As a cider educator, I constantly find myself relating to drinkers using the language of beer. The average craft beer drinker in the US knows far more about beer than the average cider drinker knows about cider. In fact, I know more about beer than I know about cider, despite having never made beer, and being an internationally-recognized cider expert. Craft beer is extremely well-established, so cidermakers operating within the beer industry have a leg up on those cidermakers who are trying to educate others about apple nuances and introduce new cider vocabulary.

When making cider for beer drinkers, Japanese makers may want to consider a brewery license so that they can add non-apple ingredients. A base of at least 15% malt is required for brewery-made ciders. I have tasted these kinds of ciders and collaborated with breweries to produce them, and when well-crafted, the malt character can diminish to a nearly imperceptible level. Cidermakers should quickly move beyond the potential argument of a malt-included cider being impure.

Because of the nearly non-existent cider culture in Japan, there is very little customer expectation of flavor and ingredients. Because of this, cidermakers employing a brewer’s strategy can make ciders in a wide range of flavors and styles. With this freedom comes the responsibility of these cidermakers to expand their customer’s understanding of the possibilities of cider. They should be careful to ensure that they aren’t telling customers that there is only one true way to make cider.

Packaging choices for ciders following the craft beer trend should follow beer: cans, kegs and bottles. 60% of the global beer market is in cans. Kegs are the most profitable way for bars and restaurants to sell beer and cider. A minuscule 5% of cider in the USA is sold in 500ml and larger glass bottles, and that number is shrinking every year. Prices should also follow craft beer, which may be too low at first glance. But there is immense variety in beer prices, and I would encourage cidermakers to hold up the high end of the range, to show customers that they are making a high-quality product with fundamentally expensive ingredients. What is the cost of a pound of grain and a gallon of water versus fresh apple juice?

Beer-loving cidermakers can find opportunities to sell cider in craft beer bars and festivals. Collaborations with breweries are a great way to reach new and cider-curious customers. Engaging other typical passions of craft beer fans such as live music, urban culture, artisanal foods and a focus on flavors can reap rewards.

Each of these potential paths has excellent examples around the world, and I would encourage any aspiring cidermakers to visit producers who are making cider in these styles. But there is a better way to decide which path to follow, other than betting on how the Japanese cider industry will develop. It is critical that cidermakers produce ciders and build a business that is authentic to who they are, and reflects their own values. Multi-generational orchards can diversify beyond fresh eating apples, add value to existing crops, and preserve the centuries-old agricultural heritage of the Japanese countryside by establishing farm-based cideries. Established winemakers can source apples from the same regions as their grapes and use their existing sales channels to bring wine connoisseurs onto the cider bandwagon. Or young and enthusiastic urban-based beer lovers can align with the red-hot craft beer industry and provide a unique beverage that can hold a spot on any craft beer drinker’s never-ending tasting flight. The promise of Japanese ciders is so unique, unlike anywhere else in the world, and I cannot wait to drink them all in the years to come. Every single one.

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