April 2010

Sake Pioneers - The Most Important Man in Sake?

Posted by Beau Timken in 2010, April, Newsletter
27! That is not a very large number. It's not small either. But when you look at the entirety of the sake brewing history, 27 is a mere fleck - a flash in time. That said when 27 is isolated into a small part of sake evolution then it is an impressive number indeed! So just what in the heck is this #27? Is it a milling ratio - nope! Is it consecutive years receiving a gold medal - no! Is it the amount of days for fermentation - close but no cigar!

27 represents the number of batches of sake made by Masa Shiroki, the brewer and owner of the Osake brand of sakes and a self-proclaimed Artisan Sake Maker in Vancouver, BC Canada. In the big picture, 27 batches of sake in Japan is like a drop of sake in the massive brewing tank of history, but 27 batches of sake made by a small independent self-funded sake purist is a huge number for certain.

In case you missed it - that is a pretty powerful title for this section: "The Most Important Man in Sake?" Is it deserving? Is Masa really that important? In most ways probably not, but for the future of sake - yes he represents something very promising. In a word he represents the future value of sake, and I will explain that more in a minute. But let us step back to gain perspective how Masa achieved the very impressive #27!

I just returned from a weekend trip to Vancouver, which was having a serious case of the post Olympic blues, and made a point of visiting Granville Island to see Masa's operation. I also went to see how truly restricted the sake market is in Canada. And in a word I am sooooo sorry to all Canadians because it stinks! A government that taxes imported sake 126% is just crazy! The result is a flat market where passion is hard to bring to promise. It's not economically viable to make a living importing sake at those levels, but three importing companies are giving it their all. (From what I counted in BC there are about 30 different sakes being imported by three companies.)

Masa owns one of those importing companies. So, there is nobody in a better position to see the future of imported sake in that restrictive environment. So, he decided to do something about it. He decided to brew his own sake to cut costs. Literally! He wanted to make affordable local sake that didn't cost an arm and a leg. After spending a duration of time in Japan under the tutelage of a sake brewer, he went back to Vancouver and founded his brewery - roughly 600 square feet (a little larger than True Sake) - in a touristy area known as Granville Island.

I asked Masa "Are you a toji?" (head or master brewer in Japan) and he said, "Of course not, I'm not trained and I don't belong to a guild." Later at dinner Masa stated to me that he didn't want to tell anybody at first - in a word he was embarrassed about the daunting learning curve in front of him. As such - he needed a lot of help in terms of knowledge and raw materials. And honestly he does not speak freely about this. I do know that he does not possess a milling machine and as such he takes delivery of pre-milled rice and koji rice. "Is this really brewing then?" many would ask. It's not for me to judge. He makes sake by hook or by crook, and that is okay with me.

His "brewery" or kura is ridiculously small. Everything is small. His vats are small (each vat holds roughly 88 pressing bags worth of brew), and he does have a fune! All of his sake is hand pressed, and yes, he does get different levels of brew from the sweeter arabashiri to the slightly dryer top pressed run. What was funny and I mean really funny was the size of his shubo or yeast starter "tank." It actually is a soup pot! But it works right?

I mentioned to Masa that there is a movement back to smaller batch production in Japan for greater control of the final product. (Some breweries are scaling down to smaller brewing vats to gain the upper hand on perfect control.) He said that he loves having the smaller vats, and he also pointed out that he produces year-round. I pulled this from their promotional materials:

"Unlike premium sake imported from Japan which are typically produced once a year in winter, Osake is made in small batches several times a year in cycles roughly corresponding to the changing of the seasons. This departure from tradition allows us to explore and produce versatile wines that compliment the varied in-season bounty of our local west coast cuisine - from fish and shellfish in spring and summer to heart-warming braises and stews in fall and winter."

Brilliant in theory! But I am reminded that he gets all of his ingredients from Japan, which is still on the winter cycle so maybe there is a blurring of lines there. Yet I can totally overlook that because he used the word "explore" in the above statement. And that's it! Masa is a pioneer - exploring the ways of sake to get a more affordable product into customers' glasses. It's just another stepping-stone on the path of sake. And he has followed the big breweries from Japan who opened operations in the US. And he has followed my buddies in Oregon named SakeOne who are intent on making local and affordable sake for the masses. And he is joined by the guys in Minn who are brewing at Moto-I (a micro sake brewery like Masa's but attached to a restaurant for better food and sake delivery!)

At the Osake brewery folks walk right up to a counter and can taste a Junmai Nama Genshu, Junmai Nama, and a Junmai Nama Nigori for $2. Is that awesome or what? Masa said the conversion rate from tasting to buying is roughly 60%. And perhaps that is why the brewery sells 90% of all output right on premises. Masa also makes a very nice Junmai Ginjo Nama, but my favorite brew that is not for sale came from his private stash. He poured for us an aged arabashiri that drank quite subdued and smooth - nice round flavors and a good deep rich taste hidden under the aged nama nose!

And ah heck! When you have a brewery there is the temptation to make other products, which Masa does. He sells a very yummy sake kasu, which he smiled and said more women buy to use as a skin hydrator and softener. He makes two sakekasu dressings and is working on sakekasu fruit juice blends, which rock!!

When I was at the kura I bumped into a True Sake friend, Will Meyers who is the head brewer at the Cambridge Brewing Company. Will was there to speak to Masa about his efforts brewing sake. Sake is hot amongst many beer makers - look no further than Norway, but that is another story! Point being is that sake has far more common bonds with beer makers than wine producers, perhaps it's because of my weird tagline "Sake - built like beer - drinks like wine!"

So what did I take away from my brief visit to the Osake kura?

Sake is expensive and will only get pricier! I know this. I have watched the pricing of sake go gradually up for years. It hurts! Selling sake is extremely difficult when values slip away and when importers ratchet up their prices. We loathe selling pricey sake! And we have and will continue to keep our margins low. But some day we will reach ye'ol tipping point! Some day folks won't pay above a certain amount for imported sake and so therein rests the all- important fact that sake drinkers need affordable and coiffable locally made sakes. That is why I asked if Masa could be called the most important man in sake? He is not a company! He is not a brewer! He is not a trained veteran of the sake industry! And yet he is out there on the frontlines making and selling sakes to a hungry local market that continually buys his batches out! He sells out - always!

By the sheer economics of the total picture I am pulling like mad for Masa. Quality, affordable, locally made sake. Can you ask for anything else? Masa has tackled the affordable and the local and is working his ass off to get the quality right! Does he make great sake? I would say not yet! But there is also a magic about drinking fresh and local sake that even great imported sakes can never achieve. Masa said time and time again that I would not like his sake - and I had to repeat over and over again that I am a purist and not a snob! I would rather drink local and raw sake that is okay than beer or wine etc. That's just me! But hopefully for the future of the sake market there are more of "me's" out there!

Please check out Masa's website (artisansakemaker.com) and if and when you go to Vancouver go visit his "brewery."

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