How Ontario Spring Water Sake turns rice into booze by hand

How Ontario Spring Water Sake turns rice into booze by hand

While Greg Newton was studying microbiology in Japan, he spent a lot of his free time in small breweries, or sakaguras, in Nagano. He took a job in one, eventually honing his trade under master brewer Yoshiko Takahashi, who Newton enlisted to help set up Toronto’s—and North America’s—first sake brewery. At Ontario Spring Water Sake, in the Distillery District, it takes about a month and a half to produce one batch of booze—that’s because the persnickety process is mostly done by hand. When it’s all said and done, head brewer Newton and his team will have transformed 300 kilograms of rice into 1,500 bottles of sake. Here’s how it’s made.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

The first step is to make a yeast starter culture. “You take koji—the rice we cultivate mould on to convert the starches to sugars—some steamed rice and water, and pitch a couple vials of liquid yeast in,” explains Newton. “We want to get the yeast cells to increase in number—it’s basically a very small batch of sake.”

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

Next, milled rice is washed in a senmaiki to remove any powder that still contains proteins and lipids. Newton ladles out leftover water while the rest of the washed rice spurts out. The rice is then soaked in washing bags.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

Ten-kilogram bags of washed rice are heaved into the massive koshiki (it can steam 100 kilograms of rice at a time). Steam from an electric boiler travels along coils, heating up water at the bottom of the steamer. The steamer is sealed with a piece of heavy fabric that’s belted down so it doesn’t pop under pressure.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

Koji Shimamura shovels rice out of the koshiki and spreads it onto a fabric-covered wooden platform. He kneads the rice to speed up cooling, while Newton mans the fan. In the winter, this process is sped up by opening the doors and letting the frigid air do the work for them.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

Then, inside the sauna-like, cedar-lined koji-muro, they spread the steamed rice on top of a toko. Here, the rice is given a hit of Aspergillus oryzae—a type of mould. Koji spores from Japan are lightly dusted over the steamed rice, which is then covered with blankets and left to germinate for two days. After, the rice is cooled and placed in the fermentation tanks.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

Sake ferments at a very low temperature—around 10°C. “Traditionally, sake was just made in the winter, because they’d use ambient air to cool the tanks,” says Newton. Koji rice, steamed rice, and spring water from Huntsville (Toronto’s water is too hard) are added to the yeast starter culture in three separate additions to the jacketed tanks and left uncovered. The mixture is stirred and monitored for 21 days.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

Very carefully monitored.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

It’s a two-man job to half-fill the porous fabric sacks with the fermented rice slurry. They’re folded over and carefully placed, unsealed, into the presser, or fune. The bags must be perfectly balanced within the fune, because any spills would require everything to be re-packed.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

The fune is then covered with a large steel plate.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

Then, it’s levelled with wooden beams. This cloudy liquid is left for a few days, racked and stored. The leftover lees—kasu—are used for baking, pickling, soap, salad dressing and feed for wagyu beef cattle.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

As grape wine is gauged for sweetness, so to is sake: the higher the number, the drier it is. Shimamura takes a swig of the fresh Arabashiri (the “free run” sake that first flows from the press) from a cup before beginning the bottling process. “It’s part of the job!” he says. The sake is bottled, sealed and labeled before being shipped out.

(Image: Giordano Ciampini) (Image: Giordano Ciampini)
 

Kai Takeda serves up a flight of Nama-Nama, Teion Sakura and Genshu sake. Nama-nama, their big seller, is unpasteurized, with notes of pear, honeydew and canteloupe. Teion Sakura is more acidic and Genshu packs the biggest punch. The company’s Izumi brand sake can be purchased at its Distillery District factory and at the LCBO, as well.