Co-founder & Head Brewer Tom Wilson
The word "Craft" is used very liberally in today's more consumer conscious drinks market. Indeed, the question of what actually constitutes a craft product is both highly debatable and comes with its own spectrum of differing definitions. Some say it is determined by the size of the producer, while others ignore this element altogether, simply focusing on the batch size of the product being made. Locality also features heavily, with some noting that products which are widely available cannot be considered truly craft, instead favouring the smaller producers that maybe don't yet have the infrastructure to distribute their wares outside of their own local markets. However, regardless of what your own definition is, craft beer, gin, wine and sometimes even whisky abound, with brand marketing fastidiously centred around conveying this somewhat fickle concept of craft.
Like most people, I have my own personal definition, one that I'm sure I'm not alone with, which is simply determined by the level of passion that a maker applies to their produce. Thankfully, when it comes to my beloved sake, its process heavy brewing method means that it is usually pretty straightforward to identify what constitutes the real deal in my mind. This is one of the main reasons why I spend most of my free time travelling back and forward to sake breweries, learning first-hand from the producers the methods applied and gaining an insight into just how much hard work and commitment (its rarely not the case) has gone in to each and every bottle. And I am happy to report that the venue of my first brewery visit of both 2019 and the new Japanese era of Reiwa, also my first outside of Japan no-less, turned out to be making the absolute epitome of how I define this wonderful genre of sake.
Situated in a small rather bohemian business park in Peckham, Kanpai London is the creation of Tom and Lucy Wilson, a couple who over the last few years have painstakingly built up the company from what started out as a mere hobby into a fully-fledged business. As is so often the case with sake, they both fell head-over-heels for its many seductive charms after a chance encounter during a trip to Kyoto. However, that is where the familiar element of this rather common path towards sake ends, as very few who fall in love with sake subsequently go to such extremes as founding their own brewery. But that they did, and as a result of their efforts they now enjoy the prestigious title as the UK's first ever sake brewery.
In its current form, the compact micro-brewery that they have assembled comprises of two fermentation tanks, an area for the all important washing and soaking of rice, a large steamer (koshiki) to prepare the rice, and a truly beautiful stainless-steel press of the fune variety, something of a rarity nowadays even in sake's homeland. Raw materials are sourced from not just Japan, but from America as well, with rice varieties such as Yamada-nishiki, Calrose, and the ever-present and dependable Gohyakumangoku, which just so happened to be in the midst of filling the brewery with the wonderful smell of steamed rice during my visit.
As the scale of the business has gradually expanded, so has the product portfolio, and Kanpai London now boast both a nigori (cloudy) and a sparkling variety to sit alongside their staple products. Everything that they currently make is junmai, and their mainstay is a dry and crisp tokubetsu made using Gohyakumangoku polished to 70%. However, one of the predominant characteristics of their setup is their willingness to experiment with frequently changing small-batch seasonal specials made from new and interesting recipes. I was lucky that the timing of my visit neatly coincided with the release of a new addition to a limited series known as "No Evil". This latest incarnation is a wonderfully packaged dai-ginjo called Kiku 聞 that is intended to be enjoyed warm rather than the usual chilled temperature range synonymous with this classification. These ultra-premium brews are intended to break from the status quo and instead showcase some of the sadly often overlooked aspects of the upper-echelons of the premium classifications.
But these fresh and exciting products also nicely lead me in to discussing one of the most interesting aspects to the brewery in the form of the onsite taproom. More than just a space to drink sake, the taproom plays an integral role in the overall business model. Here, Tom and Lucy have the enviable opportunity to look their customers directly in the eye and gain valuable feedback on what they have produced. It is also here that the true scale of their passion and commitment towards sake is at its most prevalent. Small details like the coasters made of Japanese tatami and the incredible collection of little porcelain sake cups adorning the bar serve as evidence as to how badly they have been captured by the seductive mysteries of sake.
The Sake Revolution
Menu in the Taproom
However, for me personally, the taproom represents a much more important aspect to the brewery, one that transcends even sake's newfound popularity overseas. Brewers such as Tom and Lucy represent a new wave of pioneers outside of Japan who have a golden opportunity to break down some of the barriers that exist around sake. All too often, potential consumers are stifled by some of the more formal customs that surround this traditional beverage. This is despite the fact that even in Japan they are not really adhered to as often as you might be led to believe from the various publications and such that have recently taken an interest overseas. Fresh new ideas such as keg sake, and even infusion varieties, may upset the purists, but they also unlock the previously closed-off potential of consumers who would have otherwise opted for more informal and accessible tipples.
What was evident from speaking to Tom is that he shares the opinion with a growing number of fellow enthusiasts like myself who recognise the importance of sake becoming more accessible in order to make any serious inroads into a marketplace long dominated by beverages such as beer and wine. Lest we forget that due to the dearth of any real quality sake available up until about ten years ago in the UK, many still sadly hold a rather negative view on Japan national beverage, and are therefore all the more difficult to win over. Kanpai London, and for that matter any future UK craft brewers that will inevitably follow suit, are therefore more than just a British take on a fantastic traditional craft from Japan. Just as wines from the new world did all those decades ago, craft brewers such as these are the inevitable evolution of this magical beverage. They are challenging the deep-rooted misconceptions about sake and helping to take it to new heights overseas. Their infectious passion for sake firmly cements my previous definition of "Craft" and I for one am looking forward to seeing the future development of this exciting sake revolution that has come to the UK.