Sake - As premium as it should be
Words: Henry Yuen

Artisan Sakemaker -

1339 Railspur Alley, Granville Island. Vancouver. 604.685.7253 artisansakemaker.com

Judging by the number of Sushi restaurants in Vancouver, one can surmise Japanese cuisine is very well received here, regardless of whether they are fine dining, budget, franchised or mom and pop eateries. The beverage to go with Japanese food? I can’t think of anything other than Sake that is more fitting. Sure beer is always popular and does go nicely with almost all food, it is Sake however that sets the mood and compliments the delicate and clean taste profile.

Unlike other distilled beverages, Sake is pure, refined and interestingly, simple as well. Its simplicity comes in the sense that rice is the essential ingredient. Refined, because premium grade Sake requires labour intensity and the Sakemaster's meticulous process on top of their respect and passion towards Sake tradition. Some breweries have been brewing Sake for over three hundred years and passing on the skill set through multi-generations family operations.

Rice, water, yeast and koji are the four basic ingredients. The quality level of these ingredients dictate and affect the taste and structure of the sake. Different rice strains from various fields alters the flavour while the amount of the outer layer removed determines the grade of sake. Premium sake usually requires at least 50% skin removal thus leaving the purest part of the rice for sake brewing. The water source is equally important. Water from the north will not be the same as the water from the south depending on the hardness or softness of the water. Water sources: spring water, well water, from rivers and from streams are all factors. The very individual touch of each Sakemaster lending his very own special heirloom yeast strain is the other key element rendering unique sake aroma and character. The koji (mold) recipe is a secret passed on from generation to generation and rightfully so, the family recipes are never the same.

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The question is, could Sake be brewed outside of Japan? The answer is most definitely, if you have the knowhow and the passion. Masa Shiroki of Artisan SakeMaker has not only proved it, but does so with flying colour. He is the first sake Brewmaster in Canada to make sake in his brewery on Granville Island which inspired him to actually grow his own rice in Abbotsford for the purpose. To begin, he played safe by importing all the ingredients from Japan. To stamp in the “local” moniker later on, Masa Shiroki decided to grow his own Sake rice in Abbotsford, making his sake a true “local” product.

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No need to second guess the quality of Masa's Sake brews.  His love and respect of Japanese premium Sake led him onto the path of making a BC Sake based on the traditional method.  The standard for his sake is so high that his “Osake” brand of sake rank favourably when compared to those imported from Japan. He was the one who introduced premium Sake to western Canada years ago by organizing a Sake seminar during the Vancouver International Wine Festival which made ways for premium sake to enter into Canadian markets. Masa was also the pioneer behind the first ever Sake Festival held in Vancouver recently, bringing in the opportunity for wine lovers to learn more about sake and a higher appreciation of this crystal-clear liquid. Equally important was the chance to taste different sake all in one session to make an informed comparison.

With 22 sake breweries participating and each showcasing four of their product lines, it was a lot of sake to sample but mind you, no one was complaining. I was delighted to be able to taste some very good top of the line Junmai Daiginjo brewed with heirloom grade of sake rice passed down from ancient era. There were sake with distilled alcohol added (Honjozo) and some have none added (Junmai) creating different styles of sake for consumers to enjoy. Since government liquor stores offer limited selection of sake brands, it is best to enjoy these fine sake at well-established Japan restaurants who often work with importers to bring the best quality sake here.     

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Not just a renowned Sake ambassador, Masa Shiroki is also an extremely skillful brewmaster and was one of the 22 breweries there. While his traditional Junmai is very engaging, he managed to adapt his sake to the North American taste bud, brewed a couple of refreshing sparkling sake and once again, put in a local spin on the 'WOW' factor at the festival. 

The Mirai – Traditional Method Sparkling Sake is made from 100% BC sake rice from Abbotsford. No doubt a delicious rice wine but filled with fresh tropical aroma and a creamy mouthfeel, decidedly easy drinking and uncomplicated! The Osake Junmai Nogori Sparkling Sake is light and crisp with aluring sweetness and floral aroma. The Osake Junmai Nama Genshu carries a more traditional sake character best served slightly chilled to let the scent to flow freely. The fourth product for sampling that day from Masa’s table was the Fraser Valley Junmai – Renaissance. He crafted this sake to showcase the flexibility of his style that exhibit a bit more acidity than most sake with the purpose to better pair with other cuisines. It’s best to visit his tasting room on Granville Island where he offers sake flights for sampling.