22 Jul 2019
17th January 2018
The UK's first sake brewery
Peckham, London might not be the first place that springs to mind when you think of sake. But in 2017 it became ground zero of a budding ‘sake revolution’ when Tom and Lucy Wilson started Kanpai, the UK’s first brewery of Japan’s national drink.
Kanpai’s backstory is endearing. The couple first fell in love with sake – which contrary to misconception is little stronger than wine – on a trip to Japan three years ago. They returned to the UK and Tom dusted off his old homebrewing kit. They started experimenting, sharing the results with friends and family. The rest is history in the making.
The brewery turns one in February and has already moved to a bigger (but still quite micro) space after a successful crowdfunding campaign. Far from a nostalgic homage to memories of backstreet Osaka bars, Kanpai is billed as ‘London Craft Sake’. Tom and Lucy look to create bold flavours that tickle the palates of UK drinkers used to enjoying craft beers and small batch gins. In this spirit, Kanpai’s logo is a London skyline silhouetted against a red rising sun.
Sold in 330ml ‘beer’ bottles well-suited to sharing, in both junmai and cloudy nigori styles, Kanpai is already stocked at Selfridges as well as bars and locations across London and the south east. JETLAG caught up with Tom and Lucy to learn about the highpoints of Kanpai’s first year.
You have a wonderful story of discovering sake together. What inspired you to take the leap and open a microbrewery?
We never really had an idea as such to start a brewery – in fact, it's an out-of-control hobby! After our first trip to Japan, we got a real taste for sake. We visited a lot of sake breweries on our trip and when we came back fancied having a go at home so we could drink it super fresh. At first we just shared our home-brews with friends and family. It's spiralled since then and in 2017 we decided to throw everything at it as we had outgrown our spare room!
Also, Lucy's grandfather was in the RAF and fell for sake when he was based in Asia – my mum recalls his pots of home-brew rice in the kitchen at home when she was young. I never knew this until we started on our crazy hobby and mum came to visit and told us. It's lovely to think it's something in the blood.
It seems like you've had a brilliant year. What's the highpoint of Kanpai's journey so far?
This year has been incredible. The highpoint is the sheer amount of support people have shown us, from crowdfunders to journalists to those who have come to events. We are completely overwhelmed with the enthusiasm for London sake and we have loved meeting so many enthusiasts.
I’m sure a lot of the resources on brewing sake are in Japanese, and some equipment is difficult to find in the UK. Has that been a challenge?
It's been super challenging being the first in the UK to brew and sell sake. We have had a lot of guidance from local beer breweries, and local suppliers have helped us to adapt beer brewing equipment. Other than that, it's been a steep learning curve on how to import things such as our rice from the US and Japan.
What did Tom learn from a trip last year to visit master brewers in Japan?
In February 2017, Tom had the amazing opportunity to brew alongside Gekkeikan’s master toji (brewer) at their craft brewery in Kyoto, after winning a competition. This was an invaluable experience and offered tremendous insights into the meticulous methods applied to brewing the very best competition-grade sakes. The smallest things can have big impacts. For example, tight controls on temperature ranges throughout the brewing process are extremely important. Our shiny new kit is glycol-cooled and automatically regulated to maintain specific consistent temperatures – a world away from those first brews in our spare bedroom!
In light of the increasing popularity of Japanese food in the UK, is more sake also being drunk?
The UK is drinking more and more sake, but its still fairly unusual outside of Japanese restaurants. Our passion is to make sake accessible and show its versatility, in food pairings, in temperature and in cocktails!
How do you recommend UK audiences enjoy sake?
We want to spread the message: sake isn't scary! It's not harsh, not strong and it's not a shot! Ours is typically around 15% ABV.
If you’re new to sake, don’t worry about brands, just look at the style. If you prefer light and subtle white wines, look for a daiginjo as this is often more elegant, fruity and refined. If you like your drinks bolder and richer, go for a junmai – these tend to be more full-bodied. If you like sweeter wines, eye up sparkling varieties or koshu (an aged variant that has similarities to sherry). Or if you really want to try something different, go for a nigori, which has a different texture entirely with some rice sediment left in it – often fruity and sweeter, a good match for dessert.
Can you say anything more about trying to create bolder flavours than are found in traditional sakes?
We do low and slow ferments to create dry and robust styles of sake, to suit the palettes of British drinkers who lean towards dry gins and hoppy beers. We want our sakes to stand up to the spicy and rich food enjoyed in the UK.
Do you have a favourite food/sake pairing?
Our junmai with smokey BBQ meats – the clean and dry savouriness cuts through the fat to bring freshness, while enhancing the umami. We love hosting tastings and food-pairings – expect more in 2018!
How has the response been from the Japanese community in the UK?
We've had huge support from the Japanese community here, including hosting an event with the Japan Society and having many Japanese visitors to the brewery. We're going back to northern Japan in February 2018 and are excited to visit many new breweries who are kindly opening their doors to us.
Where do you see Kanpai going in 2018? I hear you'd like to open a bar!
We simply want to continue to make the sakes that people like to drink! We're driven by curiosity and will continually be creating new varieties – watch out for hopped and sparkling sake next year!
The ultimate dream would be to expand and have a tap room so people can come and see the brewery and drink super fresh sake by the glass, in a fun, relaxed, izakaya-style (Japanese pub) atmosphere.
For details of stockists and upcoming events, and to buy Kanpai’s sake online (and even a sake-infused hot sauce!), please visit Kanpai’s website: kanpai.london