Who: Masa Shiroki, founder and owner of Artisan SakeMaker
What: Canada's first and only premium sake producer turns out 1,000 cases a year. Launched in January, 2007, the business comprises a studio, tasting room and retail store
Where: Granville Island, Vancouver
"In 2000, I took early retirement from the B.C. government, where I had promoted provincial exports to Japan. The next year, I decided to do something on my own. I wanted it to be culturally meaningful to me. It had to be something new, something challenging and something I could do within my budgetary means. So I started importing premium sake from Japan.
It's been an uphill battle. The market share of premium sake in B.C. is around 8%, while the rest is U.S. and Japanese low-grade sake, which is consumed hot. The premium sake market has been expanding, but not in the way that I envisioned initially, because there's a huge price gap. A bottle of California-made Gekkeikan goes for about $10, and a premium Japanese sake costs between $35 and $40.
In 2006, I thought, well, maybe I should also make sake myself, here, so that Canadians could take ownership of the product. There's a clear distinction between my sake and imported premium sake. Mine is unfiltered and unpasteurized, so it retains its original aromas and flavour profile, which means that people find it more like wine than what they have experienced so far.
My problem was that I knew what I wanted in the final product, and how to promote it, but I didn't know how to make it. So I had to start from scratch. The good thing was that I already had contacts with four sake makers in Japan. Every time I went to Japan for two or three weeks, I'd ask them to take me on as an apprentice. I immersed myself in a very piecemeal fashion, but it gave me confidence that, yes, I can do this.
I launched Artisan SakeMaker two years ago with $150,000. The hardest thing was to make a long-term investment knowing I was not going to make a lot of money. The booze business is a volume industry. If you don't do large volumes, you're not going to have a chance to recover your investment. I only make 1,000 cases a year. Suppose you earn $10 on a $27 bottle - that's not very much, is it? But I've been lucky enough to break even from the first year. I sell most of my sake over the counter; restaurants and liquor stores are 10% of my business. We've started selling to Alberta, and I've also shipped a few cases to Quebec and Ontario.
I still consider myself lucky because there has been a constant increase in people's interest in culinary culture and healthier living. And also in new styles of cuisine using Asian ingredients, for example, which are not only healthier but also attractive in creating different combinations of flavours. When you have a variety of ingredients in your dishes, you create a potential demand for new beverages. And I think that's exactly what happened in the last decade in Canada, particularly in B.C. Sake is still not a mainstream drink, but I believe it will become one.
My next project is to do rice cultivation here. I have just succeeded in growing rice in B.C. - in Ashcroft, near Kamloops. This could allow me to make the business a land-based winery, which has tax advantages over commercial wineries. My eventual goal is to make sake with 100% local ingredients.
I've also started creating products using what's left after the sake is pressed - fermented rice mash, which is abundant in essential amino acids. We came up with two condiments, and the next step is cosmetics. Japanese sake makers' hands are like babies' hands. That's because the rice mash contains riboflavin and niacin, which repair damaged skin. To make the business sustainable, we have to think about using the byproducts. They will become a money-earner for us to continue and even expand.
I don't have any secret other than what kind of yeast I bring in. And the particular rice variety, I'm not comfortable revealing. But besides that, I'm completely open to anyone who wants to learn about sake. What I like most is cultivating people's curiosity, and witnessing their curiosity turn into conviction. When people come here in couples - husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, father and daughter - one of them always says, 'No, no, I don't want to try it.' But once people go beyond the boundary of their suspicion, they open up completely. And that's the pleasure of doing this."
As told to Nick Rockel
Sake is a strong Japanese alcoholic drink made from fermented rice. Most sake gets knocked back hot. But the premium variety - crafted with special sake rice and fermented longer - is served cold. This complex beverage pairs well with many Western foods and can also be served as an aperitif or dessert wine. Premium Japanese brands include Bizen and Masukagami.
Lessons from a sake master
Time it right: "Evaluate the timing of when to start your business. That was bang-on in our case. I saw the rise of Asian culture here in Vancouver; I saw the propagation of sushi places. I also saw wine professionals starting to lack new products to introduce. You've tasted a thousand red wines, and now here's something new."
Don't overinvest: "Start small and brand yourself in the market, and eventually there will be a demand - not only for your product but also for outside investment. Do it within the means that you can afford at first. If you can do it without borrowing the money from the bank, that's the best."