There’s an element of quantum mechanics (which would be a great name for an auto shop) in my meeting with Masa Shiroki. We had been trying to get together for a few days, but fate conspired to find us occupying different locations at the same time. However, it’s all a matter of probabilities. We had to be able to exist at the same place at some point.

At least, that’s the theory.

When I’d first dropped by his brewery – the Artisan Sake Maker – on Granville Island a couple of days earlier, his charming assistant had been minding the shop. She was a great help in many ways (anyone who pours sake for me at a tasting bar is a great help), but wasn’t able to address all the questions that Id had regarding the ingredients and other matters.

So, I’d typed up my queries, and had sent them to Masa.

In return, he’d suggested that it would be better if we met. I did have rather a lot of questions.

After a lot of phone work (mainly related to my inability to be where I need to be when I need to be there) we arranged to meet at Benny’s down the street from my place, as Masa and his wife, Yukiko, were shopping in my part of town. A perfect solution.

Common Grounds

We met down at Benny’s. I’d noted it down as the closest coffee shop in the district (okay, in Kitsilano this can be a difference of inches), and figured one was as good as another.

Once Masa arrived (I’d been early) it was apparent that we had raised the collective age of the place by a couple of decades.

Still, the music wasn’t overpowering, and nobody minded us taking up a table. Which is a good thing, as Masa Shiroki and I were there for several hours.

I cleave to the words of Kasper Gutman (played by Sydney Greenstreet in the Maltese Falcon, for you youngsters out there) “I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.” Masa Shiroki likes to talk about sake. And I’m happy to listen.

Products

In proper form, we began tangential to the prime topic, with talk of the kasu he was producing and marketing. Masa was quite happy with this. He sees a broad range of options for kasu – the sake lees, the pressed moromi – from sauces and dressings, to non-alcoholic drinks (although the lees do have up to 8% residual alcohol still kicking up in there), to a substitute in a number of dishes for those who wish to avoid animal fats or glutens. Masa is looking to start packaging this with recipes at the ready.

If I had to choose a non-dead-animal-alternative, I would go for something made from sake (but I am still fond of dead animal stuff).

The kasu here has the look of a home-made cottage cheese, a rough assemblage of “stuff”. This is in contrast to what I’d seen in Fushimi (at which time I had no idea what it was). There it was flat and more pressed in appearance. But this is in part due to the older-style “fune” press that he’s using here, as opposed to the crank style I’d observed over there. The more modern presses look more like a giant accordion than anything else.

I’d first become excited about the product when I was told, before my trip to Vancouver had started, that Oyama Sausage in the Market was working with kasu for curing meat.

Jan Driessen van der Lieck had dropped by Railspur at some point, and spotted the kasu. He thought this could prove interesting, and tested it for a two month cure on pork neck (and, if you’ve read much of my Thai travel stuff, you already know my opinions on the gift God gave us in form of pig neck). The result had all the goodness of pork, that full flavour, but with no detracting smell.

So they stuck a price tag on the kasu, and things got started. Now it’s available through his shop, and is in use in a number of the better kitchens in the Lower Mainland (which we’ll talk about a bit later).

As intrigued as I am by kasu, it’s a sideshow to the main event….the sake. We approached the issue of the sake.

Masa has three products available, with two different sizes. All are “junmai” sake, which means that nothing has been used in the making except for rice, water, yeast, and koji – the “national micro-organism of Japan” – as it had been described to me before.

The Junmai Nama, the pleasant, lighter sake. When I’d tasted this at the shop earlier, it had been lively in the mouth, and mildly fruity. A good sake with spring salads.

The Junmai Nama Genshu, which is a harder hitting sake at 18%. This would hold up well with the oiler fish, and with a variety of other proteins.

And, my favourite, the nigori, the Junmai Nama Nigori. Banged up like a weissbeer, all cloud and sediment, you know you’re drinking something alive as the fluid effervesces on your tongue.

Okay, I’m kind of enthusiastic. I view the nigori with the same happiness with which I look upon a cask ale. It may not have the life expectancy of the other sake, but while it’s with us it should be enjoyed.

Masa also does smaller batch seasonals. The day after this meeting, he released a limited sparkling sake in a Grolsch style bottle. I’d been told of this by the Kitagawa’s in Fushimi. It was a product that the Japanese were targeting for the export market, but with only a limited release so far. This was a beautifully full-bodied, fruity drink, and when I did drink it, I had it with a salad of beets and pear that worked very well.

Liveliness is a word I keep coming back to in these writings. The sake is unfiltered, and unpasteurized – “fresh” sake. Namazake, when I’d come across it in Japan, had been an eye opener for me, a solid aftershock once I’d awakened to what good sake could taste like.

The Heart of the Matter

Being junmai, there’s not a lot of variety in the material. Being Vancouver, the water is ideal for a “soft” sake. He’d loved the water when he came here, and I recalled being lectured in university that the water of Vancouver was pure enough to be used in experiments, without the iron or manganese that are the bane of sake. He does a double filter on the water, and he’s ready to go.

The koji – that most estimable of moldy micro-organisms – he receives from Japan. That had been something I was interested in, if it was coming out of North America or not. But, for now, it remains purely Japanese. This is the heart of the process, breaking down the starch in the rice so that the yeast can – in parallel – feed upon the resultant sugars and excrete the alcohol, which is what we’re after.

These are junmai, as we’d said, so there’s no addition of alcohol as you’d find in a honjozo (that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as some people will arguer that the controlled addition of a bit of pure spirit lightens the sake). Masa does have pure alcohol in the shop, but he uses it as a sterilizing agent on the equipment, something that the health inspectors were impressed with when they came to visit.

And then, of course, there’s the rice. What a grape is to a wine, the rice is to the sake. And not just any rice is going to do the trick. While some rice is more suitable for eating (hanmai or shokuyomai), there are characteristics associated with those you use for sake (sakamai).

The grains will be larger, plumper, up to 25% larger than the table rice, with the starch concentrated in the core (the shinpaku), rather than evenly distributed. This is why the sakamai is milled down to concentrate the already concentrated starch.

Here’s a shot of the rice in use in Japan, with the different milling rates. My first impression, when I saw these grains, plump and desirable, was that I would really love to try a risotto with sakamai, something good like a Yamadanishiki.

That will have to wait.

The rice plant itself is bigger, with stalks significantly longer than regular shokumai. And, with the bigger grains, they’re top heavy, which not only means harvesting is a pain, but they’re vulnerable to high winds.

Technically, there are no “organic” sakes. But the rice is very sensitive to insecticides and chemical fertilizers, so you tend not to see them in use. That sounds good and green, but it also means that your yields will be a lot lower.

So….there’s a limited amount of this rice on the market. If you want a supply, you need connections.

For that you need connections, and Masa has connections.

The Right Man in the Right Place at the Right Time

I found my breath and asked about his background. How does one decide to become a sake maker?

Masa had originally been with JAL. But he’d left them to take up a position with the BC government. At the time, the government had the radical concept that trade could be good for us, and had an office that was looking at finding matches between BC and other countries.

While our timber, fisheries, and mining were closing down – one after the other, the Northwest had already gone through the surge of small brewing, and the equipment and expertise was established to the extent that new markets could start to be developed.

Beer in Japan has gone through more metamorphosis than a silkworm on serious drugs. In the early days, the market was there for any free thinking entrepreneur with a boatload of foreigners to service. Then the zaibatsu moved in, and the big 3 (Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin) pretty much carved the market up.

But, back in 94/95, a miracle happened, and the market was deregulated (to a degree). Small batch breweries were allowed to operate, and the sun rose over the microbrewery business.

It was an opportune moment, as sake was on the decline. As we all know (come on, don’t they teach you kids anything at school nowadays?) sake has been losing market share to beer and shochu for ages now. Shochu has wreaked havoc on the sake market. If you’re an average salaryman, what you need is something that will debilitate you quickly, and give you the chance of getting back home to your wife quickly after a bit of violent regurgitation in the bushes. Shochu fills that niche (or empties it, depending upon how you look at these things).

Now, if sake is on the downturn, and your skills are in brewing, and, if the laws have changed such that small-scale (compared to Asahi) brewing is permitted, someone shows up on your doorstep and suggests micro-brewing beer could be an option for you…would you be interested?

So, at this point in time, after a lot of hard work, Masa found he had a ready market for British Columbian brewing hardware, hops, and malt. Put all together, with some training thrown in, it was your perfect turnkey solution. By 95/96, he had about 10% of the Japanese market sown up.

It’s interesting that these things happen at the same time. When Masa was showing the Japanese what a perfect match this was, in the late 90s, I’d been in Kunming admiring how the Czechs had stepped in to fill the niche there, providing brewer training and hardware.

But, back to what passes for a thread in my writings.

Things were going well. BC’s doing business, the Japanese have good beer. Everyone’s happy. Then, in steps a new government.

Trade? Why would BC be interested in trade? Shut down that operation.

And so, at the tender age of 50 Masa Shiroki found himself unemployed, in the true sense of the word.

Sure, he could retire, but he had the proper attitude. He was too young. And it was time to be doing something fun. So, he turned his able mind to the question “What would be ‘fun’?”

Having been at work on the business of promoting beer production, it was obvious.

“Booze is fun!” Brilliant thought processes there, you must admit. And, bear in mind that this was from a man who was not a drinker back then.

So, with his path before him, he started with sake.

Sake

At first it was distribution. Bringing good sake to the BC market. As we said, most of the people looking at beer brewing had been brewing sake. Masa came pre-equipped with an excellent list of sake contacts. That, coupled with a crack in the BC liquor laws that opened in the early zeros meant that he could take up the mission of bringing good sake to Canada.

He’d already done a bit of this, putting brewers together with markets in BC as far back as 1998, when no premium sake at all was available. At that time he’d worked with Masukugami from Kamo, Niigata. From there he’s followed-up on a number of his contacts from the beer trade.

Of the many people he’s been working with, he’s developed a very good relationship with Toshimori in Okayama. He’s an interesting man, with a mission to bring sake to the chateau level. Part of that mission has been working to bring back a near-extinct local sake rice – akaiwa omachi – and using this as the basis for his work. Call it an “heirloom rices” and we’re probably dead on for terminology. This also equates the product with single vineyard wines. The resultant sake – Sakehitosuji – is described in John Gauntner’s Sake Handbook as “fairly dry, but inspired.” He goes on to comment on the “wonderful kire – or exit – from your palate.”

If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t know what will.

Toshimori has also been working on koshu, aging his sake for extended periods, drawing out that metamorphosis carefully, avoiding the cloying that can occur. His feeling, shared with Masa, is that if the sake is good, and that means that the ingredients are of good quality, and that the brewing is carefully done, aging sake shouldn’t be a problem. While it is a brewed product, like beer, the alcohol content is high enough that the stray items that can send a beer “skunky” are a bit easier to avoid in sake.

Now, Toshimori is pasteurizing his sake before bottling, which helps to ensure a more stable storage, but Masa has pulled out a batch #5 that he finds quite striking. He’s had it down for over a year and a half now, and had been slowly pulling the bottles out. It was taking that koshu “sherry” finish, and was aging with a remarkable mellowness.

Pasteurization is something that Masa isn’t ruling out, and he may start experimenting with it, but I must say, I’m happier without it.

When do we eat?

It’s in the culture to look for good opportunities to put couples together. In Masa’s case, the matchmaking is in finding the right foods to go with sake, an obsession I share.

When I was in Bangkok for the WGF back in September, I’d come across numerous instances where a good sake would have been an excellent choice than wine for some of the dishes we were having, particularly the subtle flavours of Sigi’s Icelandic cuisine. But there it’s an issue with marketing on the part of the sake vendors.

When you ask Masa about matches, he’ll tell you he’s been looking at charcuterie and cheeses. He did a tasting with Oyama, that went very well (and which I wish I’d been at). He’s found that the junmai works well with goat cheese, and that the nigori is a good match for Morbier. The stronger Genshu could hold its own with a blue cheese.

Honestly, when you smell a good sake, you smell the backdrop of mold and yeast.

Jan had three sausages, and the junmai did admirably with lean German meat, while the nigori, bubbles and sparkle, wound its way about Italians and chorizos, accommodating the picante notes of those meats.

The genshu would’ve worked well with pate (and I’d like to see it with an English brawn, thinking about this as I write it), but they couldn’t decide at the time, and put it with a polish sausage with a lot of garlic.

In June, 2008, Masa and Chef Angus An put forth a sake menu at An’s Gastropod on West Fourth. He passed me a copy of the Sake Celebration Menu, and I’m copying it out here to give an idea of some pairings:

Sake Celebration Menu

Oysters with Wasabi Snow – Sauterne jelly, shallot reduction

Smoked Salmon Millefeuille – Honeydew, cantaloupe

Both of the above were served with the Makukagami Special Junmai Sake

This was followed by

Bizen Junmai Ginjo together with

Sweet Onion Soup

Serrano ham, beet salad

After that it was

Slow Roasted Pacific Halibut – Galangal broth, sunchokes

Sakehitosuji 1994 Vintage Sake Private Reserve

(the Toshimori koshu we talked about earlier)

Then….

Sake Kazu Pork Cheek with Scallops – Black radish, spot prawns, dashi

With

Masa’s Osake Junmai Nama

And then

Sous-vide Elk – Poached pear, long pepper

Paired with the Granville Island Osake Junmai Ginjo Genshu

The wrap up was

Rhubarb Pavlova – Sake kazu sorbet, vanilla pastry cream

With, of course, the nigori (Osake Junmai Nama Nigori) to play with it.

Why wasn’t I in town for this? This is a menu I can go back over time and again.

Next time I’m in Vancouver, I need a kitchen.

Where to Find Good Sake

Somewhere around here the topic came up of finding his products. Where could I start experimenting more with food and sake. Tojo’s was a given, of course. The first name that came up was The District, in North Van, who are serving Oyama’s products, including those worked with kasu.

But that was just the start. There was plenty of good company. Miku, Kingyo Izakaya, Shuraku, Zest, Ping’s Cafe, Bistro Sakana, En, Gastropod, C, BlueWater Café, Flying Tiger, Salt, and Bonita are all places where you could find a good sake. Aurora was another very fine place to enjoy it, but they’ve shut their doors, unfortunately. And Sooke Harbour House across the water had Masa’s sakes on their wine list.

One of the bright points of working to popularize sake in Vancouver isn’t just the reception among Canadians, but how often he’s seen it awaken a certain appreciation in the visiting Japanese, particularly the students over for extended stays. He’s been hearing – roundabout – about the “guess what I found in Vancouver!?” aspect that his sake has had.

Of course, that’s been my reaction, too.

And Beyond?

The obvious question, of course, when something good is available, is how you find it when you’re not in town.

Right now, export isn’t something that Masa’s keen on. The real joy of his sake is that it’s namazake, and that doesn’t necessarily travel well (although he’s entered his sake in several contests that have called for distance and time).

He’d rather look at the idea of working to set up breweries in other locales if he was to pursue this, as the concept of region is near and dear to his heart (and is – arguably – the cornerstone of NorthWest cuisine). Montreal and Toronto would both be good markets, with enough people familiar with sake to support their own brewing (as has happened in California with the likes of Takara), but there’s nothing immediately in the offing.

They’ll just have to come to Vancouver.

The Devil and the BCLDB

A lot of what we’ve talked about is concerned with bringing good sake to the attention of the public, and from that point, letting their taste decide. A major obstacle to this, however, is, of course, our government. In this case, the British Columbia liquor board.

Sake is being treated prejudicially. The BC Liquor Distribution Board (the BCLDB) classifies sake as a “fortified wine”. This moves sake up into a far higher tax bracket, subjecting it to a 136% markup (as compared to 117% for table wines), and makes it relatively more difficult for restaurants to move it in comparison to wine (which itself is overly expensive in BC).

One of Masa’s goals had been to introduce a good, fresh sake at a reasonable cost point in the market, filling the gap between the readily available sakes of Gekkeikan and Hakutsuru (who control close to 90% of the small market between them) and the expensive premium sakes that had managed to fight their way onto the shelves.

However, this treatment isn’t making that effort any the easier.

So, if you do care about this, then write your local representative and give him an earful on the unwanted interference of the state in our right to appreciate the good things in life.

Or, invite him (or her) out for a drink.

[via Dipsophilia by Peter]