Strawberries like fine wine: concentrating taste in fewer berries

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. 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.

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."

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.

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