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From Japan, with duties paid

I live in a small market town in West Norfolk, not too far down the road and around the bend from a fabulous retailer named Beers of Europe. It’s a veritable beer warehouse – a Mecca for beer drinkers to sample beers from all over Europe and further afield. There’s a substantial cider corner in this retailer too – good for finding the latest Sheppy’s or Crones Cider releases – but to be specific, not so much in the way of ciders from Japan. The firewall is well and truly down if you’re a beer drinker around my neck of the woods – if it’s that beverage hailing from America, China, Japan and more, you will find it here. All this being mentioned, I have no local bottle shop actually in my hometown however – e-commerce is by far the best route to bring a wealth of different styles of cider to my doorstep.

Alongside my long-standing passion for all things Arran Whisky-related, I have over the years discovered the numerous routes to procuring region-exclusive bottlings and shipping them back to the UK. For Japan, I use a proxy shopping service called Buyee (others are available) which links you in to numerous auction sites and online stores, allowing you to buy items from them from the comfort of your sitting room in damp ol’ Blighty, have them sent to a warehouse in Japan, and from there, sent out via air freight to your doorstep.

Late last year when shopping for a Japanese-exclusive, Nintendo-themed product for my partner’s Christmas pressie, I thought I’d take a chance on some Japanese ciders and have them bundled in with my pre-existing order. I had no prior knowledge of Japanese cider-makers, or what to expect from a Japanese cider. I know of Lee Reeve and his well-respected InCiderJapan magazine – but other than being on a bucket list of places to visit one day, my exposure to Japanese drinks has been minimal so far. I stumped for two makers: Aomori and Son of the Smith – a bit more about them below, before the reviews of the ciders.

Aomori Cidre is an urban cider-maker, producing European-style ciders in at The A-Factory in the North-West seaside tip of Aomori. From photos on their website, the A-Factory looks to be giving Ryan at the Caledonian Cider (…Factory), a run for his money in terms of scale and general Factory-ness. The Aomori Prefecture, home of the Fuji variety of apple, produces approximately 50 million tons of apples per year – just over half of Japan’s annual apple harvest. Some of these find their way in Aomori’s Cidre.

Son of the Smith, based in Matsumoto, Nagano draws influence from the American cider-scene, notably Reverend Nat’s in Oregon. Their bottles feature a QR code, which very usefully (like Cwm Maddoc and Nightingale’s 750ml bottles) takes you to their website and offers a much greater level of detail about each individual cider, than could ever possibly be squished onto the bottle’s label. With the assistance of Google Translate, all of this transparency and extra information is accessible to those that do not speak or read Japanese. 

*The notes about the two bottles I tried below from this producer were researched after drinking them, to go in as blind as possible to the tasting.*

Original uses Granny Smiths and Fuji apples, fermented using No.7 yeast (a Sake yeast) and some Sweetgrass (a cold-tolerant perennial native to a specific area of North America, and an important wildflower for Native Americans).

U.N.I.T.Y uses the Fuji apple, and a mixture of Wild Yeasts alongside the liquid Omega Yeast, and…lemongrass. It aims to “solve the problems of Fuji, which has been considered unsuitable for brewing.” The Brewer’s Note for this explains that it’s a “super-experimental cider” and to “enjoy the acetic acid and lactic acid sensations of Spanish Seadra” that it presents.

Son of the Smith. Hard Cider. Original.

How I served it: Chilled

Colour: Lemon water gold

On the nose: Spice and fruit vying for attention, bit of an apple chutney vibe, with raisins and a hint of walnut.

In the mouth: Light level of effervescence, a la Ross on Wye, with that spice and fruit note from the nose continuing on the palette. Mild acidity, with a pleasant lemon bonbon astringency, the acidity masking most of the residual sweetness, quite like a UK eastern counties style of cider. After a few minutes in the glass, a pear drop element makes itself apparent too.

In a nutshell: The perfect cider to accompany a cheese and chutney session at Christmas.

Son of the Smith. Hard Cider. U.N.I.T.Y

How I served it: Chilled

Colour: Brassy gold with a slight haze

On the nose: A whiff of acetic acid. Could it go the way of Spanish cider rather than overtly faulty cider?

In the mouth: Ah this is a shame, it’s that E-2-Nonenal fault, a papery/wet cardboard sensation in the mouth. When it’s left to open up a bit in the glass, approaching the Spanish Sidra vibe, but I’m not sure it’s intentional. Time to do some research on this one (displayed above)

In a nutshell: more soggy cardboard than sensational cider.

Aomori Cidre. Sparkling Dry.

How I served it: Chilled

Colour: Pale lemon, crystal clear liquid, light effervescence

On the nose: Citrus, grape, perfumed white wine, grassy.

In the mouth: Carbonation more apparent on first sip, bubbles bursting all over the roof of the mouth, which in turn releases aromatics from the cider. Acid-driven, would hazard this is from a culinary or dessert apple in Japan, a bit of a tannic backbone hidden behind that sharpness, right at the end of the evolution of flavours, the mildest of creamy, biscuity notes developing. Very clean, very refreshing, very suited to a 330ml bottle.

In a nutshell: Great presentation and delivery of a Japanese producer completely new on my radar but who obviously care a lot about the high value perception of their ciders.

Aomori Cidre Sparkling. Standard.

How I served it: Chilled

Colour: Electric yellow, light effervescence with a small mouse on top from bubbles.

On the nose: Stewed apples, fresh apple juice, whiff of fig.

In the mouth: Molasses and blackcurrant notes, quite unlike the suggestion the colour of the cider imparts. There’s a nice mouthfeel here as the sharpness of the cider sits underneath the added sweetness (compared to the dry version). Slight chalkiness on the finish, very tasty.

In a nutshell: Well worth an inclusion in any ciders of the world tasting box set. A release to be proud of.

Aomori Cidre Sparkling. Sweet.

How I served it: Chilled

Colour: Peach water, pearly sheen, very light effervescence in the glass.

On the nose: Slightly plastic, clovey, soapy fragrance. Not getting much in the way of apple.

In the mouth: Apple chewits- now there’s a pleasant, nostalgic taste I wasn’t expecting. A definite estery, confectionary note, with an associated flavour memory leaning on sherbert (my mind shifted to the first Austin Powers film just briefly). Definitely a sweeter cider than I’ve tried in a long time (does Japan have a sugar tax similar to ours, or can it go all out?).

In a nutshell: Tastes much better than it smells, with a bit of a neutral appearance in the glass, however the presentation in that dinky 330ml glass (like Artistraw and Bartestree) really elevates it.

Conclusions

There’s no skirting around the fact this was an expensive way of consuming some cider. Without an importer of Japanese Cider into the UK, there are a lot of people taking a cut out of the total cost to bring these bottles to my doorstep. If you’d have asked me three years ago if I would consider importing a few bottles of…cider, not whisky, from Japan, I’d have probably chuckled and walked away. My tastes have widened over the last few years, as has my curiosity for all things cider and perry-related, and with that comes an appreciation for the value in trying drinks that pique my imagination.

I think my takeaway point is this: in an age of infuriating border checks and additional customs duties on goods to and from the EU, it’s maddening, and equally slightly reassuring, to find that it’s almost easier to import 5 bottles of cider from Japan, than it is from Ireland, Germany, or Switzerland. I’m not saying you should do it, but it’s nice to know the option is there if you wish to. And if, like me, you wish to one day take a holiday to Japan, there’s a small cultural reference point you can carry with you – to visit Aomori and Son of the Smith’s cideries.Maybe even bring some bottles along from the UK to give to their cider-makers, extend the hand of friendship, and say Wassail then Kanpai. 乾杯

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