Our ‘Love Your Work’ profile series sets out to discover and showcase individuals, organisations and initiatives, all of whom share our commitment to quality.
This month, we headed down to Peckham in South East London to meet husband and wife Tom and Lucy Wilson of Kanpai, London’s first and only craft sake brewery. What began as an adventurous homebrew project in 2015 quickly became an obsession, and this year, following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the couple opened their new microbrewery and taproom in London.
Whilst being plied with delicious, freshly brewed sake, we discussed where their fascination with Japan came from, how they learnt to brew some of the best sake outside of Japan and why working with your partner can be the best, and sometimes hardest, thing in the world.
So when and where did your fascination with Japan begin?
Tom: My parents moved to New York when I was a teenager so I was at university in Nottingham and then travelling over to see them in the holidays - it was pretty cool. This is fifteen or so years ago and New York, at the time, was leagues ahead of London in terms of Japanese food, and attached to that was sake. Over the many years I spent there I really got a taste for Japanese cuisine, and high end Japanese cuisine especially. After I finished university, I lived and worked in New York for a year and that’s when I really got my first taste of quality sake.
When I then moved back to London and started hunting for good sake here, I could only find a handful of places that sold recognisable Japanese sake. I then met Lucy and introduced her to it, along with a few of my friends who were into it too. We did a few sake parties, sushi dinners -- that sort of thing -- and then we travelled to Japan together. That was the real mind-blowing, epiphany moment. We travelled to really small, old school, craft sake breweries, where they make what’s called Ji-sake, a sort of local variant of the drink. It’s a bit like what the French refer to as terroir -- a taste of place. The first time we went out there was Autumn, so the brewing season was underway [the sake brewing season always starts on 1st October], and so the first sakes of that season were coming out. We were enjoying fresh, unpasteurised Nama Sake and you’ve never tasted anything like it.
That was a real eye opener for me, but also for Lucy, who wasn’t really into sake at that point.
Lucy: I think it’s also worth saying that we didn’t go to Japan to hunt down sake specifically, we went to Japan to explore a place we were fascinated by and obsessed with. We half planned the sake part and half stumbled across the breweries. If we go to Tuscany we visit vineyards, if we go to Bruges we visit beer breweries and it was the same for us with Japan and sake. It was just part of the whole experience of seeing as much of the culture as possible.
We fell in love with Japan as a whole, and sake was a part of that. The other side of it was this underground party world in which we experienced sake, and I’d say that had almost as much to do with how we ended up here. It was such a different experience. Everyone let their guards down in these tiny little bars that you could hardly fit five people in and the barman would just keep pouring sakes all night long.
And when exactly did the idea of trying to brew sake yourselves come about?
T: We’d brought a lot of sake back with us, and it was around the point when we were starting to run out that we thought we should try and make our own.
The really fresh stuff, which we were drinking out there, you just couldn’t find here in London, so we thought we’d have a crack ourselves. I was already brewing beer at home and the majority of the kit you need is very similar. To simplify it somewhat, sake is basically a beer. A Junmai sake -- everything we make is Junmai sake, which means it has no distilled spirit added -- is naturally fermented and it’s all made from the grain [rice].
It became this homebrew project which started off as a bit of fun and quickly became an obsession. First, it took over our spare room, then the kitchen, the lounge, the bathroom -- it was mad. We weren’t selling any, this was purely in the pursuit of making the best sake we could, for ourselves.
L: We both have quite obsessive personalities, so if you’re going to do it, you’re going to do it properly. Every night I came home Tom had ordered a new bit of kit from somewhere.
T: It reached a point where we thought ‘this has become a bit nuts, do we scale this back, or do we find a garage or lock-up somewhere and move the equipment there?’ At this point, it still wasn’t a commercial thing, we were making some fairly high quality, fresh sake and it was just a cool project that we enjoyed.
It took us about six months to find somewhere to rent -- a really small unit so narrow you could only just squeeze past either side of the fermenter tanks.
L: It was about that time that I thought we should give it a name and see if people were interested in the idea. It took us all of two seconds to come up with the name Kanpai, which means ‘Cheers’ in Japanese and is a word we heard and used hundreds of times whilst we were out there.
So we started a Twitter & Instagram account and a very basic website just to see what would happen. What we didn’t predict was that Selfridges would spot us almost immediately and ask to stock us. That was when it became a ‘thing’.
Tom working the rice at a brewery in Northern Japan.
Were you looking into the potential market for the drink over here in the UK at the same time?
We often say that, yes, we were first to the party, but the party is a small one and we have to be realistic. Sake is still a niche drink.
It's always a great surprise how many people do know about sake though and it definitely feels like more and more people are becoming aware of it. There are stats that show exports from Japan are growing and we’re seeing first-hand that there’s a real movement now.
People are curious, they want to drink quality over quantity, and I think sake, as something new, really fits into that. That’s a big reason why we created our sparkling sake. Sparkling drinks are that bit more familiar and people can relate to it as they would a prosecco or champagne.
T: What we’ve found is that the sake’s that are being exported from Japan are usually at one end of the spectrum or the other. You’ve either got mass produced table sake, which is cut with distilled spirit and tastes okay but is limited with its food pairings. And then at the other end of the spectrum you’ve got extremely expensive sake that’s quite often competition grade. So a more accessible sake seems to be missing from the market.
What we’re trying to do is open peoples’ eyes and minds to what sake really is, especially naturally fermented sake.
L: When we tried to find decent sakes in the past, they were often tucked away in high end Japanese restaurants and came with a price tag totally inaccessible to most people. Our drive is to make sake at a price where people can just give it a go, and that’s also why we do half-sized bottles so that people will, on a whim, pick it up and try it.
Sake shouldn’t be elitist -- it certainly isn’t in Japan -- so the point of us doing this locally is that people can get it fresh and at a realistic price.
As you say, sake is still a relatively niche drink so can you give us a ‘dummies guide’ to how it’s brewed?
T: Whereas wine undergoes a single-step fermentation process and beer a two-step process, sake is completely unique in that it’s a multi-parallel fermentation process. So rather than throwing all the ingredients in together at once - rice, koji, water & yeast - you build them up gradually, over time. Koji is a mold spore - it’s bright green and it’s the same thing used to make soy sauce & miso. What we do is we propagate the koji throughout a portion of the rice, probably around 20%, in an environment where the temperature and humidity are really tightly controlled.
The koji breaks down the starch in the rice and then the yeast turns that glucose into alcohol, with the koji and yeast work symbiotically throughout the process. That takes time -- around three months in total to make a batch. We don’t want to rush the fermentation process because we’re bringing out all these different flavours and aromas in order to create a real depth to the final drink.
It’s amazing the crazy, fruity aromas you can get just from rice. This special process and sake yeast also creates a higher alcohol content than, say, beer or wine - a typical sake is between 14-15%, but you can ferment naturally up to about 21% - and that’s with no added sugar and no added alcohol.
Kanpai’s three flagship sakes - Kumo, Fizu & Sumi.
Aside from Fizu, what other sake products are you brewing?
L: We also have Sumi, which means ‘clear’ in Japanese. That’s our flagship, award-winning sakes and it’s clear, crisp and dry with notes of melon & nuts. This is the kind of sake you’d have with your main dish as it goes really well with meat, fish and even fattier foods like cheese, smoked meats & oysters. At home we tend to serve it in a white wine glass and drink it exactly the same as you would a wine.
And then there’s Kumo. This is our cloudy sake [Kumo is Japanese for ‘cloud’], with a very fine amount of rice sediment added into it to create the final product, and you get a bit more of a rich flavour as a result -- think banana, spice and star anise. This one can stand up to fuller flavours like barbecues and spicy foods.
T: Now that we’re in a bigger premises and have different types of rice arriving, we’ll always have our core range but we’re also going to be doing more seasonal and limited runs. For me, it’s about staying true to our roots -- self taught, experimental, and taking everything we’ve learnt from our trips to Japan -- and then creating these seasonal ones as more fun, playful sakes. If one of them ended up being particularly popular then maybe it could migrate into the core range, but we’re in no rush to do that. We just want to have fun with it and, really importantly, see what people in London want to drink. We don’t want to constrain ourselves at all.
Two new steamers, double the size of the previous ones, ready to be put to work in Kanpai’s new brewery in Peckham.
With an experimental, somewhat self-taught approach, how do you both ensure you’re making the best sake you can?
T: We’re always striving for perfection, but that in itself is an unattainable. I’ve spoken to a number of experienced Toji about this and the opinion in Japan amongst the master brewing community is that if you’re not adapting, not changing, not trying to make it better, then you should retire.
The job’s never done and it’s never perfect -- the end result can always be better. Our goal is to make something great that people enjoy, but we’re always trying to improve everything we do behind the scenes. There are so many stages, elements and factors in sake production that you can always be trimming the edges, making it better, more rounded, improving every single step.
L: All of that said, quality ingredients are also really important and that’s why we go back to Japan every year to build relationships with suppliers.
T: Precisely. We only source the best ingredients out there and you can see around you here in the brewery that there’s no automated equipment. Everything is done by hand.
Kanpai's sake rice, along with the koji and yeast they use, are imported from Japan.
As a way of introducing Kanpai to more people, you’ve both been involved in broader Japanese supper clubs and events. Have you organised these yourselves or paired up with others?
T: A bit of both to be honest, but the bigger, more successful ones tend to be when we’ve paired up with a food-focused outfits. Amongst the best are Gaijin who host a Japanese supper club in Hackney Wick. The quality of what they do is just mind blowing. They do three nights of supper clubs about once a quarter and historically we’ve come in on one of those nights to offer a sake pairing for each course.
L: We’ve also got a thirty-seater table upstairs in the new brewery and we’d love to get them down here. Peckham really needs some decent Japanese food!
T: We’ve done these pairing events with Japanese supper clubs & restaurants, but for us it’s not just about Japanese food, it’s about opening people’s minds to what you can pair sake with. We’ve done some great pairings with Spanish food, French food & American barbecue. Pairing sake with barbecued food is just spot on -- it’s probably my favourite type of food to pair sake with.
Kanpai teaming up with Gaijin supperclub to offer a sake pairing with each exquisite course.
What advice would you give to someone else with an idea for a niche product?
T: If you’ve got the passion, go for it. But you really need that passion. First and foremost, you need to love it, because it’s going to be such hard work.
L: For us, this all kind of happened by accident. We never thought about being a startup, which is exactly what we are now. Without realising it we've done the textbook thing of getting the product out there and having a go, without it being perfect from the beginning. Our first bottles and brand looked so different to what we have now, but we weren’t going to wait until that was all perfect.
T: A lot of people hide themselves away for a couple of years, spend a lot of money on a branding agency, and then they launch this polished product which no one has ever heard of before. To me, that’s not real. If you’ve got an idea, get out there and do it because you’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to have to adapt. That’s the beauty of it.
Finally, what’s it like working with your partner?
L: I think it’s really important doing it with someone else, although I’m not quite sure I’d necessarily recommend that person being your husband or wife…!
But honestly, it is incredible. Most people don’t know what their partner is like at work. You spend most of your time at work and they’ll tell you some stories, but you never really know what their work life is like. It’s really impressive to see it first hand, to see your partner grafting and thriving.
T: It’s amazing and terrible at the same time. Without a doubt we’ve come through the other side of this and have more amazing moments now than terrible ones. But there was a time where it was 50:50 -- things would be great, things would be bad.
You obviously need a strong relationship and you can’t blame each other for things. You’ve just got to find solutions and crack on. Working with someone you’re so close to can be dangerous because you’re so much more honest with them than you would be with a regular colleague. Having said that, I wouldn’t want to share this experience with anyone else on the planet other than Lucy. It’s crazy what we’ve done, and if I was doing this on my own, no one would know what I’d been through -- they just wouldn’t believe it. But the two of us totally get everything that’s going on.
We’re in this tricky situation right now where we’re working crazy hours, the likes of which we’ve never worked before, but because we have such a love for it and are meeting such amazing people and doing such cool thing, it keeps us going. You’re knackered on the one hand but it’s your lifeblood on the other.