A new lucrative niche market? That’s worth toasting

A decade-long quest to supply Alberta barley into the Japanese 
shochu market is getting closer to a successful conclusion

Kanpai!

That’s the Japanese term for cheers — and the day is getting closer when it will be said as glasses of a popular distilled beverage made from Alberta barley are raised.

Garson Law

Garson Law
photo: Supplied

“The Japanese don’t grow enough barley to supply their own market — they need tens of thousands of tonnes of barley every year,” said Garson Law, research manager with the Alberta Barley Commission.

Shochu is a fermented product sometimes called the Japanese vodka because it is clear. But it retains the flavour of its base ingredient (it can also be made from ingredients as varied as sweet potato and rice) and so is more comparable to cognac or whiskey.

It rivals, and sometimes, surpasses sake in sales, and is the drink of choice among younger Japanese alcohol connoisseurs.

Shochu made from barley is the most popular variety and Japanese distillers mainly source the grain from Australia. But Alberta has been trying to get into this lucrative market for more than a decade, with Japanese shochu makers providing some of the R&D funding.

“They’ve been in it as long as we have,” said Law. “It’s been worth their time and money to undertake this relationship with us.”

Researchers have identified Canmore barley, developed by Pat Juskiw at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Lacombe Research Centre, as a variety suitable for shochu. It was licensed by Canterra in 2013 and the company is now working with seed growers to create a large volume of Canmore.

“Right now, we’re in the testing phase,” said Law.

Canmore is an attractive variety for growers because it has a great yield and stands up well, said Law.

The barley commission is working with Iichiko, Japan’s bestselling shochu producer, which needs a large sample size of 10,000 to 20,000 tonnes for full-scale testing at one of its plants.

Researchers have found the Canmore variety grows better in some areas than in others.

“The best region we’ve seen so far from the data that we’ve collected is coming from the Lacombe area where the barley was initially bred,” said Law. “So the question is, how do we get 10,000 tonnes from that area, or any other area where it tests well?”

The Crop Diversification Centre in Brooks and the University of Alberta have been doing some processing and base analysis of Canmore.

“We’re looking at 20 different biochemical tests to collect as much data as we can on a biochemical level to see what the good-quality parameters are,” said Law.

Samples are also being sent to Japan to be tested for fermentation.

“They’ll make some of the products, because we don’t make any shochu in Canada,” said Law. “We leave that to the experts.”

Although Alberta barley growers haven’t been able to tap into this lucrative niche market yet, the future looks promising — not only abroad, but closer to home. Iichiko has opened its first North American office and is looking to tap into the large market of Japanese restaurants and alcohol connoisseurs in the U.S. and Canada.

If testing goes well, there could eventually be regular exports of Canmore to Japan.

“We’re hoping they will be there in the next year or so,” said Law.

About the author

Reporter

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, she has also published two collections of poetry and a biography about a Sikh civil rights activist. Her freelance work has appeared in numerous publications across Canada.

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