Question: What happens when the Toronto-born son of Estonian immigrants, a female master brewer from Nagano Prefecture, a microbiologist from Guelph, Ontario and a 355-year-old brewery run by an old samurai family come together to work on a single project?
Answer: The Toronto-based Ontario Spring Water Sake Company, the first sake brewery in eastern North America. Here, Japanese sake-making equipment, pure Ontario spring water and California-grown sake rice combine to make 10 varieties of award-winning Izumi brand sake.
Nearly six years after founder and President Ken Valvur orchestrated these elements and began production of Izumi in 2011, you can find his sake on the menu at 60 Toronto restaurants and in provincial liquor shops throughout Ontario and Quebec. The brewery, based on the former site of the Gooderham & Worts whisky distillery, has grown from producing between 7,000 and 8,000 liters a year to its current 20,000 liters. In addition to its signature unpasteurized “Nama Nama” junmai sake, its undiluted “Genshu” junmai and its low-temperature fermented unpasteurized, white wine-like Teion Sakura, the brewery tasting bar offers three lively, just-pressed single-tank arabashiri sake.
But let’s back up a bit to tell the story from the beginning. It starts with Valvur, that son of Estonian immigrants, who began hustling part-time jobs starting at age 14 with the dream of traveling and seeing the world. When it came time to attend university, he had a choice: live in residence at the University of Toronto, or live at home and spend his hard-earned nest egg touring a piece of that big world for ten weeks. He chose the latter, setting out for Europe with his money belt and traveler’s checks. “It never would have occurred to me to go to Japan,” says Valvur now.
Japan didn’t enter his consciousness until years later, while studying for a graduate degree in international business at Thunderbird School of Global Management in Arizona. It was the late ’80s and “Japan was at the top of the financial world,” recalls Valvur. “For purely commercial reasons, I decided to study Japanese.”
The decision was pivotal. Hired by Scotiabank, Valvur worked his way up to become head of capital markets in Tokyo. What started as practical foray into a booming economy gradually turned into a passion for the country and its culture. “To be honest, I went to Japan for commercial reasons but fell in love with many aspects of it,” says Valvur. “The food and the drink are definitely two that are close to my heart.”
Four years later he was posted to London, where he noticed the growing popularity of Japanese food, in particular bento boxes. It was, he realized, a business opportunity, and Valvur had always wanted to start his own business. He was 34 and decided it was time, in his words, “to take a flyer.” It it didn’t work out he knew he could return to the bank, unlike his Japanese friends. There, he knew, “if you leave the company, you’re toast.”
He returned to Toronto and launched a company called Bento Nouveau. His bento boxes and sushi sets were a hit, and his business grew to four retail stores. When he added supermakets and cafeterias he opened a commissary where the sets were assembled, and eventually the sushi was made onsite. The company quickly became the biggest bento operation in Canada, and today includes more than 500 on-site sushi prep kiosks and 21 retail stores.
When Valvur sold the business in 2007 to a private equity company, he was 46 and “not quite ready to retire.” His thoughts turned to another of his passions, sake. In Japan, he had fallen in love with the brewed beverage, especially unpasteurized namazake. He had also cultivated a valuable brewery connection. Every year he traveled to FOODEX, the giant food and beverage tradeshow held in Tokyo, to source everything from nori to baran, the decorative fake grass that adorns sushi sets around the world. Valvur had become friendly with the Miyasaka family, the Nagano Prefecture-based brewers of Masumi premium sake, and had helped the family import the product to Canada.
Valvur loved the Miyasaka products, and saw that Canadians were taking to them as well. It was a short leap from there to decide to try his own hand at making sake. Wisely, he asked the Miyasakas to be consusltants to his new venture. The family helped him lay out the brewery in the space he had found in the historic distillery district, put him in touch with suppliers, and offered training in sake brewery operations to Valvur’s then general manager, Kazuto Hayashi.
The last piece of the puzzle was finding a master brewer. Yoshiko Takahashi, one of the few women toji in a male-dominated field, was between jobs, and agreed to come to Toronto for a year to develop the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company’s first brew. Her last toji position, with Tomono brewery in Nagano, had ended when the brewery owner’s oldest son had completed his brewing and fermentation studies and was ready to take over the job.
By the time Takahashi arrived in 2011, Valvur had built out the brewery with a container load of equipment shipped from Japan. The only non-Japanese elements were his three 1,000-liter Italian tanks, originally designed to hold wine. Their stainless steel, Canadian-made temperature jackets, he reasoned, would make servicing easier. Instead of natural gas, which was forbidden in the historically designated building, he powered the brewery with electricity.
Valvur knew that Ontario was blessed with large reserves of fresh water, and set to work hunting for spring water with the chemical composition of two of Japan’s most famous sake waters: Miyamizu well water from Kobe, and Fushimi spring water from the Kyoto area. Painstakingly, Valvur went through all of the groundwater sample profiles at the provincial environment ministry. He looked for water with minimal amounts iron and sulfate. The ratios of bicarbonate, magnesium, calcium and potassium had to be as close as possible to his target profiles.
His patience paid off: Valvur found his Miyamizu match near the Ontario city of Barrie, and his Fushimi match in the lake district of Muskoka. Again harking back to his ideal, Masumi sake, Valvur decided on the soft water Fushimi profile, guessing that with its fuller body, residual sweetness and fruitiness, this style would hold more appeal for Canadians than the clean and dry style of Miyamizu.
From there, it was a matter of finding a small bottler willing to work with a startup, and arranging for regular 2,000-liter totes to be trucked to the brewery. Valvur still remembers the moment toji Takahashi tasted his Fushimi-type water find. “Her eyes lit up, and she said, ‘Yes! This is good water.’” He knew he had hit the nail on the head.
For rice, Valvur looked to California and CalRose, which was already being milled for sake in large quantities for Japanese sake industry giants like Gekkeikan and Ozeki. Most of it is milled to 70 percent of the original grain size, but milling can in some cases reach 50 percent. Valvur uses M201 medium grain, a strain that shares common parentage with Yamada Nishiki, the most common sake rice grown in Japan.
For yeast, he buys both 701 and 901 from the Brewing Society of Japan, the former “in deference to our link to Masami” and the latter for a “few funky batches” the brewers experiment with. Valvur breathed a big sigh of relief when environmental testing found no competing yeasts in his brewery, despite its history as a distillery.
When Takahashi arrived, they hooked up the equipment and got to work. But they were missing a few things: one was the cloth bags, or sakebukuro used to separate sake from lees. So Valvur provided Takahashi with a sewing machine and cloth and she made the bags herself. The first batch also coincided with the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, so the brewery radio was tuned to NHK radio 24/7 as Takahashi anxiously awaited word from her soldier son, who was stationed somewhere in the danger zone. “Luckily about a week after the disaster she heard from him,” Valvur recalls.
Over the course of the brewery’s first 16 batches, Takahashi refined Izumi’s balance. The fruitiness was there from the beginning, says Valvur, in melon and pear notes and a bit of apple from the low-temperature fermentation, but over time it tilted less sweet and more balanced.
Through a combination of location, Valvur’s previous connection with the provincial liquor board on behalf of Miyasaka brewery, and positive social media and local press coverage, the brewery had customers waiting for its opening. “We never had to make a single call,” says Valvur. It also helped that his distillery district location was becoming an increasingly popular dining, shopping and tourist area with lots of foot traffic.
Still, Valvur notes, “no business is easy to get started.” For him, the hard part was “balancing how much you produce with how much you can sell.” Sake has a limited shelf life, and production, which requires a capital outlay, can’t turn on a dime.
Mid-way through Takahashi’s one-year tenure, Greg Newton joined the team. Newton, an aspiring brewer with a master’s in microbiology from the University of Guelph in Ontario, had continued his postgraduate studies at the University of Tokyo. He fell in love with sake (and his future wife) while there, apprenticed at Daimon Shuzo in Osaka, then worked an entry-level job at Tomono Shuzo, assisting with overseas exports. In a weird twist of fate, it was through Newton that Valvur first learned about former master brewer Takahashi, who, if you’ll recalll, had also worked at Tomono Shuzo. Newton connected the aspiring brewery owner and the female master brewer. The story came full circle when Newton arrived at Izumi in the fall of 2011 and began a six-month training under Takahashi before taking over as head brewer.
“Figuring out the brewery from scratch” had been challenging for Takahashi, says Newton; she had met Valvur only once before her arrival, via Skype, and spoke no English. But by the time Newton arrived, halfway through Takahashi’s stint in Toronto, she had the process worked out. “She was very serious and meticulous, as you have to be,” he recalls, “specifically about what to look for when pressing, the measuring of alcohol and sugars.” Yet Newton also learned that “a lot of it comes down to taste and feel, knowing when to do things…that’s one thing she was trying to teach.”
Newton’s first solo batch was number 18; four years later, at the end of 2016, he was in the process of pressing batch 106. Now based in Cambridge, Ontario, Newton has cut back on the time he spends in Toronto, and relies on trusted senior brewer Kosuke Shimamura to oversee day-to-day operations at the brewery.
In addition to the challenges of matching sake supply with demand, Valvur is burdened by a nearly 50 percent tax rate. As the only sake producer in Ontario, Valvur lacks the lobby of, say, the craft beer or Ontario wine industries. Yet, he notes, “we’re no less craft than anyone else, and in essence we’re increasing the sake pie, from the government’s point of view. To offset the fact that Izumi is “basically a tax machine” for the provincial and federal governments and has only recently approached break even, Valvur plans to open a second, larger-capacity suburban brewery in the near future. There, he’ll make a less expensive draft sake, take advantage of economies of scale and, he hopes, eventually expand sales to the U.S.
Meanwhile, next to the brewery entrance, a pop-up beef curry stand operated by a local Japanese restaurant welcomes hungry shoppers, who can complement their curry with sake. Bundled up shoppers come in from the cold to sample some Izumi arabashiri or a warm sake-apple cider concoction with maple syrup, yuzu juice and ginger. Against this cozy backdrop, Valvur pours an ochoko full of the latest sake to come off the press, a nama still cloudy with ori, or lees, and settles into a chair to enjoy the savory, umami-filled fruits of his labor.