Wednesday, May 6, 2015

An Early History of Sake Brewing in British Columbia

When was the first Sake brewery constructed in North America?

As I previously wrote, in An Expanded History of Sake Brewing in the U.S., the first Sake brewery in the U.S. started producing Sake in 1902, though there had been an earlier idea, which did not come to fruition, to start a brewery in Chicago in 1892. Was the U.S. the first country in North America with a Sake brewery? My latest research indicates there was likely a Sake brewery in British Columbia (B.C.) that predates the U.S. one, though the answer is not as simple as that.

As Japanese immigrants came to the U.S. in the 1880s, some of the first Japanese immigrants to Western Canada arrived around 1889, to the coal mines in Cumberland. Others would soon follow, often coming to work on the railroads, in fisheries or the logging industry. Vancouver became the center of the Japanese community. By 1900, there were about 4600 Japanese in B.C. and by 1911, there would be about 8600, far smaller numbers than immigrated to Hawaii or California. And where there were Japanese immigrants, there was Sake.

Ryoji Onodera, who would become a significant figure in Sake brewing in B.C., was born in 1854 in the Miyagi Prefecture of Japan. In 1875, he married Uino Oikawa, whose father was a businessman involved in the transport industry, and he was subsequently adopted into their family. Oikawa became a successful businessman in his own right and, in time, was intrigued with reports of salmon fishing in Vancouver. Seeing a business opportunity, he traveled to Vancouver in August 1896. He liked what he found, returned to Japan to gain more experience and acquire some workers, and then went back to Vancouver in 1897.

For the next couple years, he traveled back and forth between Vancouver and Japan. In May 1899, he brought to Vancouver with him a Sake brewer and a cooper. Oikawa's plans were to produce Sake, soy sauce and miso for the Japanese community in and around Vancouver. The copper would use cottonwood trees to construct barrels. Enough Sake was soon produced that some could be traded or sold to other local residents, much of it traded for dog salmon. For white fishermen, dog salmon were considered relatively worthless, but it was a commodity of value to the Japanese. Interestingly, two types of Sake were produced, a clear Sake to trade with white fishermen for the salmon, and a type of nigori, a cloudy Sake, for the Japanese. 

This large-scale Sake production, with an expert brewer and cooper, predates the first U.S. brewery in Berkeley. However, it must be noted that Oikawa's operation was illegal as he didn't possess a license to brew alcohol. There had been illegal Sake operations in the U.S. too, though none approached the large scale of Oikawa's operations.

Eventually, in early 1901, Oikawa and about thirty others relocated to Don Island, which was previously uninhabited and located on the Frasier River, though the island soon became known as Oikawa-jima. One of the first buildings they constructed on the island was a Sake brewery, showing the great importance of Sake to their community. By 1910, much of the population was seasonal, following the fishing seasons, and one of the only year round activities was the production of Sake and soy sauce. Sake production had grown, and that would lead to its doom.

Despite Oikawa's Sake brewery being illegal, the authorities had never bothered it because they saw it as something too small scale for their attention, as well as something that was largely directed at the Japanese community. However, after receiving some complaints, possibly from competitors, the local police felt compelled to act. In September 1911, the police raided and shut down the brewery.  .

Much of the above information is based, in part, on a historical novel that was written by Jiro Nitta and published in 1979. Though some of the book is fictional, it is strongly rooted in fact, and based on numerous unpublished sources, including an autobiography by Oikawa. Additional sources have verified much of the information with the novel, and noted where there were fictional aspects. The general information about the early Sake brewing appears to be largely accurate, and supported by other sources.  

For example, Buck Suzuki, who was born into the Don Island community, verified that Sake brewers were brought from Japan and that the operation was on a large scale. He noted that the rice for the Sake was stored in huge barrels while thousands of gallons of Sake were produced. He also mentions that the police did raid the brewery, using axes to break open the barrels. Another man who lived in the area during that time, Albert Olson, stated that the Sake was being sold for $2 per gallon, or 35 cents per bottle.

The first legal Sake brewery in British Columbia likely originated in 1923. A July 1923 newspaper noted that the Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewing Co., Ltd, has received approval to brew Sake. The brewery was founded by Koichiro Sanmiya, a Japanese businessman who came to Vancouver in 1907. He also owned a hotel restaurant, an import/export business, and a Japanese -language newspaper. At the time, his license for the Sake brewery was the only distiller's license in British Columbia so it was clear there were no other Sake breweries in the region.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to uncover much else about this brewery, except for its role in a lawsuit concerning a non-compete covenant.  Apparently the brewery possessed a full alcohol license but only ever brewed Sake. There was another company in the area, Vancouver Brewers Ltd., which also brewed only beer. Around 1927, Vancouver Malt assigned its license, for $15,000, to Vancouver Breweries, through the Henry Reifel Pacific Beer Agency, except it retained their right to brew Sake. As part of their agreement, Vancouver Malt agreed not to brew or sell any beer for fifteen  years.

Around 1933, the Associated Breweries of Canada, Ltd. acquired the Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewing Co., Ltd.  but apparently failed to do their due diligence. After the acquisition, they realized they couldn't brew beer at their new brewery because of the non-compete, but did so anyways. An injunction was filed against them, which they battled in the courts for about two years. Ultimately, the courts voided the covenant, finding it was too wide in application and was not considered reasonably necessary. Associated Breweries were thus allowed to produce beer at the former Vancouver Malt, though I have been unable to determine when the brewery actually stopped producing Sake.

Today, there are two Sake breweries in B.C., including the Artisan Sake Maker, owned by Masa Shiroki, which was founded in 2007 on Granville Island. The other is the YK3 Sake Producer, which was founded in 2013, taking over the the former Nipro Sake Brewery in Richmond.

I'm not sure if there were ever any other Sake breweries in British Columbia, but I am continuing my research and will update you all if I find anything new.

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