Japan’s cider scene is on an upward trajectory. Nikkei Trendy magazine even included domestic craft cider on its “2021 Hit Forecast Ranking,” where the beverage came in at No. 18 (out of 30). Although COVID-19 has made it challenging to plan promotional activities, stakeholders in the cider industry are quietly confident that the time is ripe for this apple-based alcoholic beverage to gain prominence.

One such stakeholder is Kota Seito, the manager at TDM 1874, a brewery, liquor store and bar in Yokohama. Seito and his team hope that domestically produced cider will be the next big thing after wine in Japan.

“The alcohol content is lower than wine, and so in a way it is (also) more health-conscious than beer,” he says. “I believe there is a niche for cider as it fits the current trend in the alcohol industry.”

The cover from issue 12 of InCiderJapan | COURTESY OF LEE REEVE
The cover from issue 12 of InCiderJapan | COURTESY OF LEE REEVE

Smoothing the path forward for the drink is InCiderJapan, Asia’s only bilingual magazine dedicated to all things cider. It’s the brainchild of Lee Reeve, a Japan-based cider importer and distributor, who also works as a consultant for the burgeoning Japanese cider industry.

“I’d worked in publishing in Japan for many years when I began noticing a resurgence of cider and its popularity in the U.K. and U.S. I thought the same could happen in Japan,” says the British-born Reeve. Hoping to raise the country’s cider profile, Reeve started researching the cider market here and published the first issue of InCiderJapan in December 2017.

Reeve says that while French and British ciders have been circulating in Japan for the past decade, they were usually imported by small wine shops. But the market is expanding.

“Since 2019, Australian and U.S. cider imports have grown, as have brands from other European countries,” he says. “Australia, in particular, has identified Japan as their next prime cider market, as have several areas in the U.S., such as the Pacific Northwest.”

Raising cider’s image has been an ongoing challenge for those wanting to promote the beverage, and Reeve says that Japan isn’t alone in that respect.

“In countries such as England and France, where cider is a traditional beverage, it has been dogged with an outdated image of being a cheap drink made by country farmers or a mass-produced alcopop,” he says. “Here in Japan, there is the never-ending (consumer) confusion of non-alcoholic soda-cider versus ‘real’ alcoholic cider.”

The latter is sometimes called “hard cider” to distinguish it from the soft drink version. Moreover, further confusion may arise from the fact that Japan adopted the French pronunciation, “cidre,” (shīdoru in Japanese) rather than the English “cider.”

Reeve has been making strides, both for the drink and his own career. Since 2018, he has been working with the American Cider Association, which hosts CiderCon, the world’s largest cider conference for industry professionals, to connect the United States and Japan through cider. Earlier this year, he had the opportunity to do an online presentation on Japanese cider for the event.

He has also partnered with the Japan Cider Master Association and a nonpolitical organization in Nagano Prefecture, the International Apple and Cidre Association, to collaborate on a three-year government-sponsored initiative to promote Nagano through cider. Thanks in part to his efforts, five cider makers in southern Nagano were slated to take part in Global Cider Connect, a project bringing counterparts from Denmark, Norway, the United States, Australia and Spain to the region last November.

Although the pandemic threw a spanner in the works last year, the stakeholders remain undeterred, and the six-nation Global Cider Connect event is going ahead this November instead. The plan is to make use of video and online meeting technology and hold the event regardless of whether the participating international cider makers can travel. Reeve sees it as a valuable opportunity on several levels: “Japan gets on the international cider map as an important cider hub, cider makers learn new techniques and methods, and there is sharing of information and cultural exchange.”

Farm & Cidery Kaneshige is one of the Nagano cider makers planning to participate this autumn. Kanashige grows fruit trees in its orchards, and produces award-winning cider, along with other apple beverages. Representative Hayato Sakurai sees plenty of scope ahead for developing Japan’s cider market.

“The primary focus here in the southern Nagano area is to educate producers and consumers alike. We’re holding cider seminars and events to help cider culture take root in Japan,” Kanashige says. “While the impact from COVID-19 has been serious, we see it as an opportunity to improve the awareness of our staff. The Japanese cider scene is a very interesting place to be.”

The current state of emergency to try and stop the spread of COVID-19 has led to a ban on alcohol sales in Tokyo and other areas covered under the emergency, making things tough for the capital’s bars. Among them is the Cidernaut in Shibuya, Japan’s first store offering a wide variety of ciders on tap from barrels. It’s run by Hikaru Takeda, who notes that while Japan has many apple varieties, they are usually sweet and lacking acidity or astringency. As a result, it is difficult to create the complex tastes created through blending of apples as seen in European cider. However, he says this can also be seen as a chance for experimentation.

“Cider in Japan is in its infancy, so there are only a limited number of choices for brewing, such as the type of apples and yeast,” he says, offering some insights on the future direction of Japanese cider from the hospitality industry’s side. “On the other hand, because the standards are vague, there is a lot of freedom, which allows for interesting products to be created as ideas arise.”

Despite the current challenges, including the pandemic, Takeda remains optimistic. “The Japanese cider industry has a lot of dreams, and the task ahead is to take cider from a trend and develop it into a culture.”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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