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Challenging Times at British Columbia's YK3 Brewery

Master brewer Yoshiaki Kasugai and co-owner Yuki Kobayashi share their sake at a Muji store opening in Burnaby, B.C.

In February of 2018, I visited YK3, a small sake brewery in Victoria, British Columbia headed by veteran toji (master brewer) Yoshiaki Kasugai. He is the creator of a line of sake called Yu (悠), a dreamy name that can mean “quiet” or “calm,” but also “far off,” or “boundless.” The brewery is in fact far off the beaten path, due south of downtown Vancouver, close to where the Fraser River empties into the Strait of Georgia. Housed in a non-descript industrial mini-mall, it seemed to take a long time to get there in traffic from my Vancouver hotel, though it’s actually only about a 20-kilometer (roughly 12-mile) drive.

Launched in 2013 by owners Yuki Kobayashi and Yoshihiro Kawamura along with Kasugai, they coined the name YK3 because their first names all begin with the letter “Y.” Kobayashi is an accountant and former risk management consultant and Kawamura is a New Zealand-based real estate investor and entrepreneur.

Though small, the brewery was fully equipped, with a handsome black noren (short, divided curtain) bearing the company’s logo, which led through a doorway into the white-walled brewery, where a 37-kilogram stainless steel rice steaming vessel sat on an equally compact gas burner. There were 500-liter brewing tanks, and a storage room-turned koji room filled with rectangular wooden koji-bako, or trays, used to propagate koji mold on just-steamed rice. To create his koji-muro Kasugai simply added hardwood floors and two space heaters to supply the requisite heat and moisture for propagating koji mold spores. He also jury-rigged a compact stainless steel fune, or vat press. I noticed a small Brother sewing machine, which Kasugai used to stitch up the cotton bags the mash is placed in before pressing.

Kasugai on the job, stirring sake mash.

I took home some bottles of the brewery’s delicious, award-winning Yu junmai, and also a bottle of all-koji junmai. The latter is made using 100 percent koji rice instead of the standard 8:2 plain steamed rice-to-koji rice ratio. I aged the latter bottle for over a year, and it was worth the wait, yielding up a mellower drink that was especially food friendly. But Kobayashi says that this sake can be aged for 10 to15 years. “The oldest vintage we have is two thousand and ten,” she told me, “which is excellent, and can probably age further. It tastes like sherry, fruity and acidic.”

Back in 2018, you could find Yu sake on tap at Kissa Tanto in Vancouver’s Chinatown, and the business seemed to be humming along nicely. Sales had extended as far as Alberta, Quebec and Japan.

The Fraser River, just south of YK3 brewery.

But a few weeks ago, I learned that YK3 would soon have to vacate the premises, a victim of both the real estate bubble that has extended to suburban Vancouver and Covid-19 challenges. “When we started eight years ago, this was considered the middle of nowhere,” says Kobayashi, “but now this is considered a prime location because it’s near the condos that are being built close to the [Fraser Delta] highway. Values have gone up like crazy.”

Early this year, YK3’s landlord sold more than 30 units to another landlord, who seems to be interested in future development. The brewery’s rent doubled. In the middle of the pandemic, with a third lockdown on indoor dining looming (it began on March 29), “we couldn’t afford it,” says Kobayashi. “There was no point in renting it for another three-to-five years when who knows what’s going to happen.”

In 2020, YK3’s annual production plummeted from between 4,500 and 4,700 liters to a mere 1,500 to 1,600. It may have been able to withstand pandemic shut-downs alone, but the added lease issue has pushed the company’s condition into the critical zone.

The brewery’s biggest customer is a “progressive” sushi hand roll restaurant called Hello Nori which, until the Covid-19 crisis, ordered three to four 20-liter kegs of sake a week. But with no patio to allow even a partial opening, the restaurant is closed for now. Kasugai is nevertheless brewing as much sake as he can before the brewery space is turned over to the landlord at the end of April; the company will stockpile it for post-pandemic sales. Meanwhile, Kobayashi and Kawamura are looking for a new home.

YK3’s current situation is especially poignant considering the partners’ motivations for launching the brewery. Soon after arriving in Christ Church, New Zealand in 2003 to set up an outpost for his family’s real estate business, Kawamura learned that its water was considered among the best in the world. Japanese pay attention to such rankings since the single most important factor in brewing sake is water quality. Every major sake brewery that has survived the last century’s drastic winnowing down of brewing capacity proudly touts its pristine water source as the foundation of its success and longevity.

Through a friend, Kawamura also became involved in the Japanese government’s 200-million-yen international effort to promote kokushu, the national drinks of Japan, which include sake, shochu and awamori. As a consultant to the project, he learned that the average age of Japanese sake brewers in 2005 was almost 80 years old. “We realized that in ten or twenty years, we were going to lose lots of talent, knowledge and experience,” he says.

One way to preserve these ancient beverage-making crafts, Kawamura realized, was to promote the spread of brewing know-how abroad. Japanese master brewers could plant the seeds of knowledge that would then be spread by locally trained craftspeople.

Kawamura acted on his convictions. In addition to becoming a founding partner of YK3, a year later, in 2014, he became one of the founding partners of Zenkuro, an award-winning sake brewery based in Queenstown, New Zealand. Both British Columbia and Queenstown are close to important winemaking regions: British Columbia is home to both the Okanagan Valley wine making region and Vancouver Island, and Queenstown is the gateway to the Central Otago winemaking region. Across New Zealand, says Kawamura, “winemakers are all keen to know how to make sake.”

Zenkuro and its master brewer David Joll have collaborated on sake tasting dinners with wineries in the Central Otago and Marlborough winemaking regions, while YK3 has taken part in collaborative events like a dinner with the restaurant La Quercia, at which YK3 sakes were served with Italian food and Italian wines were served with Japanese food.

YK3 rose out of the remains of a previous B.C. brewery, Nipro, which was founded by one of Kawamura’s senpai, or older classmates, at university. When he became ill and was no longer able to run the company, Kawamura and Kobayashi joined forces to buy it. They considered master brewer Kasugai Nipro’s most important asset and brought him on as YK3’s toji. For her part, Kobayashi told sake writer Elise Gee, “The numbers didn’t convince me to be quite honest when I was purchasing the business, but I still wanted to do it. I wanted to try and to say that I had done it. I wanted to contribute something as a Japanese person in Vancouver.”

Asked if she has any regrets now, eight years later when the company is facing its toughest challenge yet, Kobayashi says, “I still think that sake, especially when it’s made locally, has the potential to grow. But I have to admit that Covid has significantly slowed the growth of the sake market in B.C.” Yet she remains steadfast in her goals. “It is still Yoshi’s and my passionate business ambition to promote sake and Japanese culture, so I hope that we will find a good location to continue our business,” she says.

The partners are now weighing their options. A move to Vancouver Island, where their sales remain strong and there is a culture of supporting local craft businesses, is an appealing idea. They would also like to find a space that will allow them to set up a tasting room, without which it is hard to sell products from the brewing site.

As for Kasugai, he says, “To be honest, I feel only worry. But in over ten years of making sake here, I’ve also seen a positive change in the growth of the sake market.” One helpful trait their master brewer possesses, says Kobayashi, is that he doesn’t have to be in the middle of a big city to be happy. Reared in rural Nagano Prefecture, Kasugai, she notes, “would be happy in any remote area, as long as he can brew sake.”

Kasugai concurs. Returning to Japan is his very last resort, he says, adding gamely, “I am ready to go anywhere in the world where my sake brewing skills are required!”

 

*This article was originally published on the author's blog on April 5, 2021.

 

© 2021 Nancy Matsumoto

british columbia Canada master brewer New Zealand sake toji Victoria YK3 Yoshiaki Kasugai Yoshihiro Kawamura Yuki Kobayashi Zenkuro