Some months ago, a curious new strawberry began appearing in my social media feeds. The berry, which comes in packages of three, six or eight, was a uniform pale red. Each berry in each plastic carton looked almost exactly the same - heart-shaped, symmetrical and indented on the surface where, in a store-bought strawberry, yellow seeds would appear. One more notable thing: They cost between $5 and $6.25 apiece.
The Omakase Berry, a Japanese variety grown by the New Jersey-based company called Oishii, bills itself as an entirely different strawberry experience. The website even offers advice when it comes to eating them: Allow berries to sit at room temperature for 10 to 15 minutes; let the berries' aromatics "fill the room"; inhale the "bouquet"; eat.
Oishii grows its berries indoors vertically, leveraging technology that its co-founder and CEO, Hiroki Koga, 34, explored in Japan. "I got my first start in the vertical farming industry as a consultant in Japan, where it took off before anywhere else in the world," he said. "But the whole industry failed pretty quickly, you know, in the early 2010s in Japan, because it was too expensive to grow leafy greens in a very tech-savvy, costly environment." The technology, he said, was there; someone just needed to find the right way to use it.
The first run of berries (the Omakase cultivar) has been geared toward the luxury market and is available only in the New York City area. But the company is in the process, Koga said, of expanding its market share. Some of the varieties the company is experimenting with can be grown in a much more cost-efficient way, he said, "which means that we should be able to place these into the market at a significantly affordable, reasonable price, compared to what it is today."
Koga came to the United States in 2015, first to California, where, he said, the quality of produce was unexpectedly good, though not as good as in Japan. The strawberries he selected for the company's first vertical farms in New Jersey are known as "short-day cultivars." In Japan, "They're grown during the winter in a greenhouse environment in a little more wet environment," Koga said.
Long-day cultivars - American summer berries - are, he said, "optimized for mass production," at the expense of flavor. Koga says Oishii's low yields are guided by the same principles as fine wine production: An intentionally depleted crop, achieved by such tactics as crop-thinning, forces the plant to push more of its nutrients and flavor into fewer berries, yielding a more concentrated flavor. The growing environment, according to Koga, is also optimized so that berries yield the maximum amount of nutrients and sweetness.
"We constantly were testing and tweaking to find the perfect environment for the unique Omakase berry," Koga said. That meant, he said, finding the optimal temperature and breeze; controlling plant management, water frequency and pruning; and leveraging artificial intelligence to help predict yields.
I wanted to know how the Omakase Berry - billed by Koga as a berry with no American equal - would stand up to other domestic fruit. I arranged my own taste comparison, using three different strawberries: Oishii's Omakase Berry, available only in the New York City area; widely available Driscoll's strawberries, produced by a network of more than 900 independent growers around the world, in such places as North America, Europe, China and Australia; and first-of-the-season strawberries from Balsam Farms, in Amagansett, N.Y., down the road from where I live. (Full disclosure: My yearly CSA box comes from Balsam.)
- The appearance
Perhaps most striking about the Omakase Berry is its utter uniformity. Each orangy berry - I purchased a package of eight for $50 - looks exactly the same. Glance quickly and you might mistake the berries for marzipan candies, their exterior is so flawless.
The Driscoll's berries ($3.99 for the company's standard 16-ounce plastic clamshell) were far deeper in pigment - the company aims for "deep red," said Scott Komar, 58, the company's senior vice president for global research and development - and were larger, overall, than the Omakase, though there was variability in size. They were covered in tiny yellow seeds. In selecting berry plants, Komar said, Driscoll's considers "the color of the strawberry, the shape, the size and the mouth texture."
My local strawberries (a quart for $9) were smaller, deeply pigmented and visually much less consistent. The traditional heart shape that is associated with the fruit became more triangular here on Long Island, where conditions are unpredictable. Balsam Farms, said Ian Calder-Piedmonte, 41, the farm's co-owner, uses a technique called plasticulture. A barrier between plants and the ground is formed using plastic, aiding farmers with weed control, assisting with water management and keeping berries cleaner.
Plasticulture, Calder-Piedmonte said, combined with pruning runners, keeps the plants compact and the berry placement concentrated. Without the plastic, he said, berries can "try to set down roots between rows, and actually will take away from the growth of the mother plants." Still, holding in my hand the tiny first berries of the Long Island season, it was hard not to consider how much work had gone into producing just a pint of fruit.
- The aroma
Oishii isn't lying when it says the aroma of its berries will fill the room. When I unearthed my plastic container from its refrigerator pack, I could already smell them. Opening the box, I was assaulted with the most strawberry-smelling fruit I'd ever encountered. Aroma, Koga said, is one of the classic characteristics of the Omakase Berry.
In this category, there was no competition. My Driscoll's berries did not have much of a scent, but aroma may not be at the top of the list in breeding priority. "We conduct quantitative measurements on the sugars, acids and aromatics of our berries," said Komar of Driscoll's berries. "Then that information helps us pick the berry varieties we will commercialize for our brand." Driscoll's places a high premium on flavor and color, and the variety I tried may not have been bred, specifically, for aroma.
My Long Island berries smelled very much like strawberries, although their scent was not nearly as potent as the Omakases. "I think there's probably more variation on local strawberries, as there are with probably everything that's locally produced," Calder-Piedmonte said. Other berries that come from "incredibly controlled" environments "where it's sunny every day" are more likely to be consistent in size, shape, flavor and even aroma. On Long Island, he said, "I think there are a lot more variables."
- The taste
Do you prefer a tart berry that's firm to the tooth? Are you enamored by sweetness? What type of berry the average consumer perceives as "best" depends on such personal preference. The Omakase Berry was, without question, the sweetest that I sampled. (However, Driscoll's grows a trademarked, premium fresh berry segment called the Sweetest Batch for strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, which Komar said are "unique selections" from the company's breeding program; I did not try these.)
The Driscoll's berries were the firmest of the three, with a consistent mouthfeel and flavor. It seemed to me that the objective in their breeding was a distinct balance between sweet and tart - and that balance certainly came through on each bite. In some ways, the acid, a quality in food and drink that compels you to keep consuming, makes sense: You're unlikely to eat only a single strawberry, but Driscoll's berries come in large, satisfying packages. It's okay to keep eating.
As for my local berries, there was something compelling about the unpredictability. They were not the sweetest berries I'd ever tasted, but they varied between sweet and tart. Pop a strawberry in your mouth and come alive with the surprise of how sweet it is. Get a slightly underripe berry and pucker in delight. That contrast might make you wish that berries at the farm stand were sold by more than just the quart.
And, as Ian Calder-Piedmonte pointed out, the distinct advantage of a local strawberry is that you're eating it the day it's picked. "They really are harvested that day or the day before," he said. Many berries are picked and then held in refrigerators (or refrigerated trucks) for days before they reach the consumer, and flavor can diminish each day. A fresh-picked berry tastes far different from a berry that has been off the plant for a few days or, as happens in some cases, a week.
Then came the Omakase Berry. The berry, Koga said, was "specifically selected out of 250 cultivars that exist in Japan," optimizing for "very strong aroma and high sweetness level." "Because most of the conventional strawberries here in the U.S. have a very high acidity and very low sweetness level, we just wanted to differentiate our product," he added. This berry, with its heightened sweetness, is the type of berry that sits heavy on the tongue. Eat one, consider it, let the sugar coat the palate. That's more than enough. The point isn't to keep eating. The point, in fact, is to stop. So I did.