On a steamy June afternoon, the apple trees in the Tsugaru region of Aomori Prefecture are laden with fruit. Now, the young apples are hard green spheres the size of golf balls, but come autumn they will be plump, sweet and ready for harvest.
While most of the crop from farmer Satoshi Takahashi’s orchards in the city of Hirosaki will be shipped to markets around the country, a small portion will be set aside and used to make Kimori, Takahashi’s brand of boutique hard cider.
A soft-spoken 44 year old with striking hazel-flecked eyes, Takahashi is a sixth-generation farmer, though growing up, he never considered going into agriculture. He was working at a television production company in Tokyo when his mother fell ill and he had to move back to his hometown to care for her. After she passed away, he suddenly found himself in charge of managing the family’s orchards.
“If you don’t care for an apple tree properly, it will die within a year,” he says.
Apples, which are native to Central Asia, thrive in cool climates, and Japan’s hot and humid summers complicate conditions for the country’s growers. The trees must be pruned daily to remove excess fruit, and the remaining apples are wrapped individually to protect them from pests and provide shade from the harsh sun. Although Takahashi admits that it was difficult to adjust to the work at first, 13 years as an apple farmer has taught him patience and perseverance.
“I came to understand that I can’t force my will on the trees,” he explains. “Growing apples cultivates character and shapes you as a person.”
Every year, however, more and more of the area’s elderly farmers are disappearing. When Tsugaru’s apple crops were devastated by hailstorms in 2008, Takahashi realized that he needed to find new ways to make the business more viable. Hard cider, he reasoned, could provide an answer.
He launched the Kimori project (a fusion of the Japanese words ki and mamori, “tree” and “protection”) in 2014 after learning brewing basics at classes supported by Aomori’s prefectural government. Kimori makes two varieties of cider. The sweet version has a honey-like sweetness with flavors of fresh, ripe apple; the dry version is crisp and slightly higher in alcohol at 5 percent ABV. The brew house also sells two seasonal releases: Harvest, produced just after pressing in autumn, and Haru, which comes out in the spring after the cider has had a chance to mellow.
The brews can be purchased at Takashimaya Department Store in Tokyo, but the best place to try Kimori is on-site, at Takahashi’s stylish brew house in the middle of the Hirosaki Apple Park (tasting is available for ¥300 per glass). With production limited to a mere 10,000 bottles per year, the products sell out quickly.
“I didn’t start brewing cider in order to make a lot of money. My aim is to bring together local people and draw visitors to the (Tsugaru) region,” he says.
Last year, Takahashi helped organize Hirosaki’s Cider Night, a festival that showcased local restaurants and alcohol producers. On Sept. 30, a visit to the Kimori cider house will be one stop on the Gourmet Ride in Aomori — a two-day food-themed cycling course that will follow a 25-kilometer route from Hirosaki to the hot spring town of Owani on the first day. The event will include a dinner prepared by Tokyo chef Shinya Ogino, along with plenty of Kimori cider — a fitting reward for a hard day of exercise.
To learn more, visit www.kimori-cidre.com.