No one could accuse Ray Naito of doing things the easy way.
To get his gluten-free craft beer concept from a back-of-the-napkin idea, to where it is now—a real-life, drinkable product, available at local bottle shops, bars and restaurants, the 39-year-old has been through the wringer.
Or the fermenter, in this case.
“I like a challenge,” the Japanese-born brewer shrugged.
Naito lives in Cranbrook. Two years ago he and his family moved to the southern British Columbia community by way of Jasper. Naito wasn’t always a brewer. His first job in Canada was in a different yeasty trade—baking, at The Bear’s Paw Bakery. That was in 2012. But his love for craft suds, plus an opportunity to get his feet wet in the brewing industry with the Jasper Brewing Co., helped give him the motivation to put his gluten-free beer business plan in motion.
“I wanted to build a gluten-free brewery for all the craft beer lovers, gluten intolerance people and myself,” he said.
Naito wasn’t always on the anti-grain train. He used to love drinking craft beer—especially big, bold, hoppy IPAs, with all their gluten-y goodness. But eventually he had to listen to his body. No matter how small of an amount he drank, invariably, the next day, Naito felt sluggish and sick. The good news was that he found the source of the problem— it wasn’t necessarily the beer, but the gluten within. As soon as he started cutting wheat from his diet, Naito’s symptoms ceased to exist.
“With no gluten, I felt a lot better,” he recalled.
Trouble was, he missed those IPAs.
“In Jasper I learned to love beer, I learned to love to make beer, but beer didn’t love me,” he said.
As such, Naito embarked on a journey to create a craft ale which would have all of the pleasure of “regular” craft beer, but (for those with gluten intolerance) none of the pain. He began experimenting in his Jasper apartment, and soon he had brewed a beer that was not only gluten-free, but eminently crushable. Made from sorghum and rice, the product would eventually become the foundation for his flagship beer: Nice Rice Pale Ale. This was in 2018. Naito’s journey to independent beer maker had begun.
However, just how long, and how bumpy, that journey would be, he could have never imagined.
Starting a brewery is expensive. Starting a new business is difficult. Starting a brewery business, in a crowded beer market, and doing so out of a new community, in a different country than the one you grew up in, adds even more layers of complexity—and not the good, “citrus nose, caramel notes” kind of complexity.
Naito had no brewing equipment, no brewing space, no agent, and barely any money. But he did have a hopper’s worth of persistence. He was determined to get Naito Beer off the ground.
“I like to be different,” he said.
Naito and his wife, the artist Rico Satoko, moved out of Jasper because Ray couldn’t start his brewery in the national park. Parks Canada’s businesses license regulations have limitations on manufacturing businesses.
“I would have loved to stay in Jasper,” he said. “But I understand why the rules are the way they are. They want to keep it protected.”
To keep the dream alive, Naito had to move. In 2021, he and Rico, plus their toddler, Hana, moved to Kimberly, and eventually to nearby Cranbrook, where Ray could rent a warehouse space and not worry about national park regulations interfering with his plans. But that didn’t mean there weren’t other hurdles to overcome.
“Now I realize running a business is so tough,” he said in October 2022.
The first series of challenges were bureaucratic. He obtained permanent residency in 2020, but moving between provinces caused complications when it came to renewing his PR. As a result, he couldn’t borrow any money—money which he desperately needed to buy his start-up equipment and brewing supplies, hire a branding expert, pay a plumber, and account for myriad other costs that were quickly piling up. His second problem was with the warehouse space itself. Unforeseen problems with the building’s electricity services cost Naito $15,000 out-of-pocket. He’s still trying to recover those losses, but the complications put him three months behind schedule, which was already delayed thanks to COVID-19 supply chain issues. He was working full time at a grocery store to put food on the table, but the bills from the not-yet-operational business were mounting.
“If I had a time machine, if I went back five years, I don’t know if I would continue,” he said.
But he was committed then, and he’s committed now, and as he slogs away in his warehouse, soaking and boiling and brewing, then canning and labelling each individual beer, then driving his product to different beer and liquor outlets in the eastern Kootenay region, Naito sees a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
“I’m still alive,” he laughed.
Getting his beer into Alberta this past spring was a key milestone. Through Alberta’s alcohol distribution system, Liquor Connect, Nice Rice Pale Ale is now available in nearly 50 retail outlets across Alberta, including all five liquor stores in Jasper. Local bars and restaurants are carrying it. Putting the fruits of his efforts into the hands of his friends and former colleagues has been critical to his brand gaining some traction—and not just among those with a gluten intolerance.
“I am getting good feedback,” he said.
That’s not to say his recipe is perfected—he’s still tinkering with the product’s simplified brewing process. Nor is the money exactly pouring in—he still works part time at a Cranbrook supermarket and heads to the brewery after his eight hour shift in the meat department. And of course the brewing process is still extremely labour intensive—at maximum capacity, he is able to can about 40 cases (480 beers) per day.
But the gluten-free craft beer niche is starting to get carved. He proudly notes his is the first gluten-free craft brewery in British Columbia, and his next goal is to sell in Vancouver. With about 600 sushi restaurants in the metro area, he figures Naito beer will pair well with a cosmopolitan palate.
“It should be a good market for me,” he said.
In the meantime, Naito is focusing on what he can control, and extending his gratitude for all who have helped him thus far.
“My wife and family have believed in me and my dream,” he said. “And I believe in it too.”
Bob Covey // firstname.lastname@example.org