“Sake is Wine.” An Interview with Masa Shiroki, Artisan Sake Maker


By Sean Yoon

Photos by Noriko Nasu-Tidball



6eH3C_yvuJRJK-XQqzt0i2yF3_bNuf-SmzlpnshiLv8,LH2cy9Jbr10rQdLU1Fn6OUNTN_zYebuEteMjvZOPAdAIf I were to ask you the question, “What is sake?” How would you respond?

I think the prevailing image in most of our minds would be of something poured from a small, slender flask container called a tokkuri into small cups to drink exclusively with Japanese cuisine at a Japanese restaurant. This is arguably the more traditional image of sake, but rejecting this image and pouring sake from a Bordeaux style wine bottle instead is Masa Shiroki, an artisan sakemaker based in Granville Island. To Masa, sake is wine and it can be enjoyed in many different settings, not just as an accompaniment to Japanese cuisine.

“I wanted people to consider sake as wine because it is called rice wine in the first place and people know that. Every time I ask the question to people, ‘So how would you translate sake to English?’ People pause for a second and reply, ‘It’s a rice wine right?’ You just said it. It’s a wine. So think of the sake I’m pouring for you as wine and in order to do that, I thought it would be important to change the image of sake visually, so I decided to use Bordeaux style wine bottles.X71EiJLMypN_wvLhjFCTnxaeHkgIIEyuyeQeplHmxlk,37s9wH1wMVYU_hK1VgsE4IBvWqO36dS9Sm8o5VdzM1o,dR5_1AEZgrpPI2VEV8ZTDdQpJhq7UQMkvYaXy_REygg

At his store in Granville Island which is titled, “Artisan SakeMaker,” Masa currently produces fresh domestic premium sake called “Osake,” sourcing purely local ingredients from BC and is the first of its kind in Canada. The rice used for the sake is grown on leased land with partnering farms in Abbotsford and South Surrey, totalling 16 acres of farmland. Sustainability is a major concern for Masa, who takes special care to ensure that all of the sake being produced under his business is environmentally friendly, done by using all natural ingredients, with no added flavours, filtration, fortification (adding alcohol/spirits), or pasteurization. In addition, literally everything coming out of the sake making process is used. What this means is that the leftovers after the sake is pressed or produced, called sake kasu (looks similar to cheese curd), is being used in several culinary applications, like being used in a marinade, as a stock enhancer, and salad dressing. The store at Granville Island also sells ice-cream made from the kasu, nicknaming it “rice-cream.” Masa’s most recent product development using kasu is its application in cosmetic products, which has led to the creation of Orizée, a cosmetic line of skincare products.

So the question becomes how was Masa Shiroki able to begin a sake making business, especially with no prior background knowledge on making sake, and nonetheless become the first leading business to produce local premium sake?

JWNxXmNHKuRBry8Iq4oHS82jvdH5SQSi-2OzpZBrh0E,KxkfAHm-3YIrOUC4_vwtrjlFLfzAhxT4Ec-BzkVKNN8,DT1Lp8agb9-F_GS_7ggvu-r_o55BOKiMp0TJpDhhJhQBeing a university student at the time, Masa Shiroki left Japan in 1970 because of the political turmoil, which had locked down Masa’s university from student movements. His cousin however, was already in Canada since 1965 and was studying at SFU, which prompted Masa to come visit her in Vancouver. Choosing to go to UBC as a first-year student, he took non-credit courses and stayed with John Howes, a UBC professor emeritus of modern Japanese history, who provided room and board for him at his house. He stayed for a year in Vancouver at that time. Over his one year stay, Masa was struck with the openness and diversity of the student population at UBC, recalling, “If you walk around the campus, you don’t see the demographic of people being of ages 18-22. You see people of a variety of ages, sometimes 30-40 year old students in class, where you’d say, ‘What’s going on here this is crazy.’ I found out that people actually don’t necessarily graduate when Japanese people normally graduate, but would stop for work and come back to study later. It was a very open, generous society and it was also a fun era towards the end of the hippie movement in the 70s. It was a completely different, free landscape.” Masa went back to UBC in his third year, and after doing a little more travelling around Canada, US, and Mexico, he ultimately decided to settle down in Canada. So by applying for a job position at Bank of Montreal in 1974, he was able to immigrate to Montreal, marking the beginning of his life in Canada.

He worked in Montreal from 1974 until 1976, when he had to leave because of the Quebec Independence Movement, where people were not able to work without speaking French, and so the bank had to lay off all the newly hired people. So he applied for a transfer, leading him to North Vancouver’s main branch from Montreal’s head office of international banking, where he was to become a corporate lending officer, performing duties like approving loans. Masa’s career then turned towards a sales and marketing focus for the next decade, including his own export business until 1993 where things get highly interesting. In 1993, Masa secured a position with the BC government under the NDP within the trade promotional department, which was called BC Trade. His primary function at BC Trade was to assess socioeconomic changes in Japan and look to promote BC’s capabilities in response to changes in the Japanese market; capabilities meaning products, services, knowledge and technology. Masa held this position for 7 years until it met an abrupt end in 2000 when the Liberals came into power, as they decided to disband the trade promotional department for the purpose of balancing the budget, leaving Masa jobless.

MuALq5NsdRSTQUGrdV1TupWxnjJjX55XIAYeP4gh5fU,B1dOsb3i9Ln7sgaZiDREc0zcabuioBgkkE7ZorhNvEg,XFu1AEYBHcAtd1tc6mHlutqo9wGZXIxFOIQHKIchcoQAt this point, Masa was at 50 years of age and while he was looking at his different options, realized that he wanted to do something culturally meaningful. Masa left Japan at the age of 25 and had been a Canadian citizen for over 40 years, but he still held a great cultural attachment to his Japanese heritage he grew up with. So he desired to give back to the community in Vancouver and Japan at large by channeling his passion for Japan into something tangible. With his extensive background in business, Masa recognised that it had to be a business somehow to make use of those skills and make a living. Looking around, he noticed that there was a lack of premium quality sake around here in Vancouver, but was abundant in Japan. So in 2001, Masa obtained a liquor import license and began to import premium sake from Japan which he continues today. However, it was in 2005 when Masa was motivated to look into producing domestically because of some major difficulties with importing. Firstly, Masa could not change anything about the imported sake because it was already someone else’s, so he could only bring it in and sell it on to someone else. Secondly, Masa found that it was difficult to sell imports as people were not used to premium quality, more expensive sake, which happened to be about three times more expensive than conventional Californian-made, or Japanese big name sake. However, noticing the growing concept of microbrewing in Vancouver, Masa thought that it must be possible to push towards manufacturing sake domestically applying a similar concept, but if he did would customers take more ownership on his product? It was a bet on Masa’s part but through contacting brewers and equipment makers in Vancouver, as well as a sake brewing consultant in Japan, he started producing domestic premium sake in October 2006, while the grand opening for the store itself was on January 15th, 2007.

While domestic sake production was a complete success and has become a sustainable business for Masa, he now seeks to increase the acreage of farmland used for sake production in order to increase the scale of production. In addition, he is also looking to expand his business into table rice (rice for consumer use) production. In order to accomplish both of these projects, Masa notes that it cannot be done on his own but in cooperation with other farmer’s acreage of land and by developing a mutually beneficial contract for farmers to grow rice for his products.

pnMHABKbU6iRFyq2vemWL5z00BtVPMUwOvoe1sHxoQ8,6-wHg4M3GerWpK8pBBkw8SSr7ZQjLBBtITKlbbMbcjM,BaLJ8cetCmfX4jUNq14tRjer7n2iO8Dfdb4abZOi3kQ,hVO-dpUcZc--JjcezcNE-4ktIGs29KO7xgC0gAMNpj8“I mean the table rice is where the market is and I need my own ingredients of course, so I would encourage current farmers and upcoming farmers in the future to grow it for me, but I would encourage them to be profitable by selling and marketing table rice with me. I have already laid out a concept to some media that we would need a rice growing co-op with other farmers. We brought in all the equipment necessary from Japan. So without the start-up cost, other farmers can join us and together we will brand our rice, which we have just named ‘BC Rice’ at the moment. So we would be in partnership, and in some cases we won’t necessarily be leasing a farmer’s land, as farmers may have their own land and develop it into a rice field. But as a cooperative member he’ll benefit from machine loans, as well as techniques being taught if necessary. In my opinion rather than competing, we should actually create a cooperative association type of organization, brand the rice and help farmers to sustain their income.”

Check out Masa’s website for more information at www.artisansakemaker.com and visit his store at 1339 Railspur Alley in Granville Island.