When Ken Valvur first tried fresh, unpasteurized Japanese sake, it changed his life. “That’s how I fell in love with it,” he recalls. “When I tasted just-pressed sake, it was an amazing moment for me.” There are few sake breweries in North America (Canada has two on the west coast), so the alcoholic rice beverage is usually pasteurized for its transport over vast distances. Most Torontonians never get to enjoy sake the way it was meant to be. Valvur intends to change all that when he opens the Ontario Spring Water Sake Company, the first sake brewery in eastern North America. The doors are scheduled to open this spring in the Distillery District.
In won’t be the first time the ex–banking executive has brought culinary treasures from Japan to Canada. Once described as “Canada’s sushi king,” Valvur founded Bento Nouveau, the largest sushi company in Canada. He also helped get sake from Japan’s venerable Masumi brewery sold at the LCBO. And Masumi is apparently returning the favour. Valvur’s new brewery, which intends to adhere to strict Japanese traditions of brewing sake, has been consulting with Masumi every step of the way.
In a space of around 2,000 square feet, Valvur’s team—headed by general manager Kaz Hayashi, a sake veteran who was once the Ontario representative for Japan’s largest sake brewery—will set up a traditional koji-muro, a “magical sauna-like room,” where rice is inoculated with the koji mould spores required to create alcohol. The brewery will also house a retail shop and a tasting bar, where fresh-pressed sake will be made available for Distillery District–goers on a weekly basis.
A variety of different sakes, including nigori (sweet and cloudy due to being partially filtered), genshu (undiluted and potent at around 20 per cent alcohol) and traditional junmai, both pasteurized and unpasteurized, will be brewed for sale in restaurants and, potentially, at the LCBO. As operations within the brewery smooth out, operators will also begin to experiment with different degrees of rice grinding. (The best sake, Valvur says, is made from rice that’s had its exterior ground away, leaving the just the pure centre.)
As any master sake brewer will freely disclose, high-quality water is a crucial element in the brewing process. So, part of the draw of setting up in Ontario, Valvur says, was access to some of the best spring water in the world (hence the company’s name). He’s excited about bringing the complex drink to Ontario, where it’s gone largely unexplored. “Sake is a very deep, broad and rich product,” he says. “Here, we’re only starting to get higher quality sakes brought in from Japan.” And soon, Toronto will be getting them from its own local brewer.