Locals Lap Up Canadian Sake and Sushi
It may have many of the same qualities as some of the finest unpasteurized sakes to be produced in Japan, but Ken Valvur’s brew is still distinctly a product of Canada.
Valvur set up the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company in Toronto in early 2011, after witnessing the rapid growth in popularity of Japanese cuisine across the nation and guessing — correctly — that there would soon be a related boom in a drink which complements Japanese dishes perfectly.
“I worked in Tokyo for two two-year spells — from 1988 and then again from 1993 — right at the end of the bubble era,” 56-year-old Valvur told The Canadian.
“I was working in the capital markets and we did a lot of entertaining in restaurants and so on, and I certainly enjoyed drinking sake — but I never really learned about it,” he said.
When he was transferred to London, it was quickly apparent just how big Japanese food culture was becoming around the world, so Valvur created Bento Sushi, which quickly grew into the biggest takeout sushi business in Canada.
The company began importing sake as part of its food operations, but Valvur said he wanted a new challenge and sold majority control in Bento Sushi to a private equity fund in 2007 to partly free up some funds for his next venture.
“I had grown to love unpasteurized sake, but the only way to get it in Canada is to have your own brewery because it has a short shelf-life,” he said.
So that is what he did.
Valvur approached the family that runs the venerable Miyasaka Brewing Co., which is based in Nagano and can trace its brewing history back to the 1600s, and they agreed to act as consultants to his venture.
All the brewing equipment that was required was imported from Japan, while award-winning master sake brewer Yoshiko Takahashi relocated to Toronto. When the first bottles were filled with Izumi brand sake in February 2011, the brewery was the first of its kind in eastern North America and only the third in Canada, after two smaller operations on the west coast.
“It has been a bit of a labour of love,” said Valvur. “It is a serious business, but it has not grown as rapidly as Bento Sushi, which seemed to get very large, very quickly.”
“I had grown to love unpasteurized sake, but the only way to get it in Canada is to have your own brewery because it has a short shelf-life.”
Nevertheless, the rise of the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company, located in the historic Distillery District of Toronto, has coincided with local people embracing Japanese cuisine.
“Our start-up was very timely as it came at the same time as a number of Japanese-style izakaya started to open in Canada — authentic because they were run by Japanese owners,” he said. ” is ‘movement’ started in Vancouver but it soon grew to the larger Toronto market and those izakaya operators have also become our customers.”
Valvur’s company also sells to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), which is one of the largest buyers and retailers of alcoholic beverages in the world, with 650 retail stores.
“The LCBO was very interested in what we were doing from the very beginning, and they have started to put more sakes on their shelves,” he said.
Valvur’s company brews unpasteurized sake in the traditional way, using Japanese-style junmai rice from California and the all-important koji mould. But the secret ingredient is Ontario’s water.
“We wanted to use soft water similar to that from Fushimi, south of Kyoto, and we were lucky that Ontario has an abundance of soft water,” Valvur said.
“I scoured government records to find water with similar chemical characteristics and we found some nearby that we bring to the brewery in a tanker.”
The result is a sake that is extremely popular and has a subtly different, distinctive flavour.
The company operates inside an old whisky distillery — all high ceilings and limestone walls — and has installed a tasting bar for the curious. Seven of the 11 staff are Japanese and give regular tours of the premises, explaining the history of sake, the manufacturing processes and the differences in the final products.
The brewery currently produces about 20,000 litres of sake a year, double the amount it released in its first year, with growth at about 15 percent a year. And, never one to miss an opportunity, Valvur has bought back Bento Sushi and now serves as CEO of both companies.
Valvur is confident that sake is close to reaching the tipping point, when it will be as popular as Japanese food.
“The potential is huge,” he said. “Japanese cuisine started in a few cities but now it is all over the country, in even the most remote places.
“Take the Northwest Territories; it’s pretty barren and cold and the biggest city there is Yellowknife — but we have two Sushi Bento outlets in supermarkets there and they are two of our busiest locations in the whole country.
“And I see parallels with sake in the future,” he added.