Tuesday, June 11, 2019
Early History of Sake Brewing in British Columbia
As I previously wrote, in A History of Sake Brewing in the U.S., the first legal 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 large-scale Sake brewery in British Columbia (B.C.) before 1902, but it was an illegal operation.
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 those that immigrated to Hawaii or California. And where there were Japanese immigrants, there was Sake.
Ryoji Onodera, who would become a significant figure in early 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, changing his name to Jinsaburo Oikawa. During the next twenty years, Jinsaburo became a successful business and, in time, was intrigued with reports of "the tremendous volume of salmon in the Fraser River (in Vancouver) and how fishermen discarded salmon roe, a delicacy in Japan." Seeing a business opportunity, he traveled to Vancouver in August 1896 and liked what he found. He returned to Japan to gain more experience and acquire some workers, and then went back to Vancouver in 1897.
Jinsaburo and a partner, Souemon Sato, settled in Sunbury, "a rural district located on the south side of the south arm of the Fraser River directly opposite Don and Lion Islands.” Soon enough, he "brewed sake for sale to Japanese and trade with whites in exchange for dog salmon." In May 1899, he traveled to Japan and then returned to Vancouver, bringing with him a Sake brewer, Juro Saito, and a cooper, Tatsunosuke Suzuki. Oikawa's plans were to produce Sake, soy sauce and miso for the Japanese community in and around Vancouver. 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. The cooper 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. Because of their Sake business, Jinsaburo gained a new nickname, “raw sake Oijin.”
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 originated around 1923, though there is some confusion over its legal status during its early years of existence. The Victoria Daily Times, July 19, 1923, noted that "Vancouver interests obtained approval for the organization of the Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd, with a capital of $100,000." This new company, located at 2235 Triumph Street, planned on producing a large amount of Sake for both Japanese consumers and others. The article stated the Sake will be "sold through Government liquor stores, as many white persons have taken to the Oriental drink.”
The brewery was founded by Koichiro Sanmiya, a Japanese businessman who was born in Sendai, Japan, around 1880 and came to Vancouver in 1907. He also owned the Strand Hotel restaurant, an import/export business, and the Canada Daily Newspaper, a Japanese-language newspaper. He also founded the Canadian Japanese Association. At the time, his license for the Sake brewery was the only distiller's license issued in British Columbia so it was clear there were no other legal Sake breweries in the region. Unfortunately, Sanmiya died in March 1931 of appendicitis.
The Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. though faced a significant obstacle from the start, though this is where some confusion enters the situation. Two days after the announcement of the plans for the Sake brewery, The Victoria Daily Times, July 21, 1923 reported on the strong opposition to the plans from Attorney General Alexander Manson. Manson received a report on illegal Sake manufacture which noted that Sake consumption had "reached the proportions of a great evil.” And Manson's reaction was mentioned, “As soon as he learned of the evils of the sake trade Mr. Manson put machinery in motion to have the whole thing checked.”
One of the items in the report was that the Japanese were supplying it to the Indians, getting them intoxicated, and then taking advantage of them in trading for fish. Manson decided that no licenses to manufacture Sake should be authorized and he made it clear that "he will refuse his consent to the operations of the $100,000 sake corporation’s operations in Vancouver. This means that this company will not be able to operate."
For about the next three years, there appeared to be no mention in the newspapers of the Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. so potentially they were denied authorization to operate their Sake brewery. Then, the Times Colonist, July 19, 1926, mentioned that authorities, seeking a source of illegal Sake, raided and seized control of the Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. They found that the brewery was well-equipped and possessed "large quantities of liquor in cases for shipment or in the process of brewing." They arrested the only person they found at the brewery and left Provincial policemen behind to maintain guard over the facility.
In a curious turn of events, The Province, August 6, 1926, reported that “A charge of keeping liquor for sale laid against the Vancouver Malt & Saki Co. was dismissed by Police Magistrate J.A. Findlay." The person who was arrested, Sam Miya, the manager, was charged with selling liquor, pled guilty and received a $300 fine. "In the charge against the company, the defense contended that there was no evidence of other than one sale and none to show that other liquor in the place was to be disposed of illegally.”
The fact they didn't shut down the brewery for being an illegal still operation seems to indicate that it possessed a license to manufacture Sake, despite the Attorney General's prior opposition. However, they would have been obligated only to sell through Sake through government liquor stores. They couldn't sell it directly to any customers, including restaurants. bars, tea houses, etc. The police magistrate's decision makes sense then, as there wasn't any evidence that the brewery was selling their Sake outside of the government liquor stores.
In 1927, Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. entered into a contract with the Vancouver Brewers Ltd., which primarily manufactured beer. Vancouver Malt agreed not to brew or sell beer, for a period of fifteen years, in exchange for $15,000 and to obtain a listing in the government liquor stores for their Sake. This would help Vancouver Malt in their Sake production. That simple agreement though would eventually become a major point of legal contention.
Around February 1932, after the death of Sanmiya, the Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. was sold. Sanmiya's eldest son had come from Japan to take over the operation of the Sake brewery, but had difficulty replicating the Sake once made by his father. Thus, Sanmiya's wife, Morio, decided to sell the brewery. It was purchased by I.B. Hewer, of the real estate firm of McGregor & Hewer, and Fritz Sick, a veteran Alberta beer brewer. They also bought a site at 1445 Powell Street and began to construct a brewery, with the objective of producing beer. Fritz is also the president of the Associated Breweries of Canada Limited, the second largest brewing concern in the region.
Hewer and Sick apparently failed to do their due diligence as they immediately ran into legal difficulties. Vancouver Breweries Ltd. filed an injunction to enforce the agreement, specifically the noncompete section, it had entered into with Vancouver Malt back in 1927. According to that agreement, Hewer and Sick wouldn't be able to brew beer at their facility until 1942. Lengthy legal proceedings began, and Vancouver Malt was at least initially prevented from making beer. At the conclusion of the first trial, in June 1832, Vancouver Breweries prevailed and the noncompete was enforced. The decision was appealed by Vancouver malt.
In August 1932, Vancouver Malt was incorporated, an indication of confidence in their business. However, in January 1933, the Appeals Court upheld the previous verdict so Vancouver Malt took the next step, an appeal to the Privy Court in London. During the course of these legal proceedings, Fritz Sick took some time to travel to Japan, to study the manufacture of Sake. When he returned to Vancouver, he decided to produce Sake, especially as he couldn't yet make any beer.
Allegedly, the Masamune Sake was even curative! In an advertisement in The Vancouver Sun, September 8, 1933, it states; “Serve warm for a cold. Masamune is widely recognized as being highly beneficial in relieving colds, and that is a big item now the rainy season is arrived. Serve quite warm either by itself or blended with hot lemonade.” Some people swear by a hot toddy, and this is simply more of a Japanese version, with a Canadian twist.
Good news than arrived for the Hewer and Sick of Vancouver Malt & Sake Brewery Co. Ltd. in February 1934. The Privy Council overruled lower courts and sided with the defendants, allowing them to now brew beer. The brewery at Vancouver Malt was then renovated so it could produce beer and the company name was changed, in July 1934, to the Capilano Brewing Co, Ltd. That same month, they released their first beer, under the trade name “Capilano.” Was this the end of their Sale production?
The ad also presented another Sake cocktail, The Soldier’s Cocktail. It is a mix of 1 part Rum “proof”, 8 parts Masamune Sake, a dash of pineapple juice to suit flavor, and a drop or few drops of Angostura Bitters. Strain and serve in cocktail glass. Dash of grenadine may be used. The approximate cost of the cocktail is 6 cents each.
However, the ads for Masamune Sake seem to end in 1934 and the only other reference I found was in The Vancouver Sun, March 28, 1935, where there is a mention that the price of Masamune Sake at government liquor stores had dropped to 60 cents. Possibly, Fritz had decided to end the production of Sake and concentrate only on beer, his first love. He might have attempted to sell off the Sake he had been aging prior to the Privy Council's decision. In June 1938, Fritz retired from Capilano.
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. The legacy of Jinsaburo Oikawa, Koichiro Sanmiya, and Fritz Sick continues.
(The original version of this article was posted in May 2015, and has seen expansions/revisions over the years due to additional research. My research hasn't stopped so there will likely be additional expansions/revisions in the future.)