The Kokoro Files spotlights the stories of everyday people and their connection to Japan. For Lucy Wilson, Japan inspired her to enter the realm of sake production. Along with her husband, Tom, Lucy is the co-founder of Kanpai Brewery, the UK’s first sake brewery.
It was a pleasure to talk to Lucy about how Kanpai Brewery was created and what it’s like to enter sake into competitions. Read on to learn more about the types of nihonshu and experiences that the brewery offers.
Thanks for agreeing to chat Lucy. As co-owner of the UK’s first sake brewery, it’s great to talk to someone who is bringing greater awareness to sake in Britain. How did your appreciation for sake develop and what inspired you to set up a brewery?
Tom has always had the taste for sake but we both fell in love with it deeper on our first holiday to Japan many years ago. From there, brewing sake was a weekend hobby, and then after friends and family enjoyed it, it grew and went turbo!
With the sake brewing process being so complex, what were the early days of creating your own drinks like?
It was challenging at first – particularly as we couldn’t get hold of sake-specific rice and growing koji is tough too! We learnt from videos, online communities and trial and error! Our first batch was surprisingly palatable which spurred us on! But it has certainly improved over the years with better ingredients, equipment and skills learnt in Japan!
I heard you were able to launch your first microbrewery in Peckham through a crowfunding campaign. How important do you feel collaboration is when trying to market a drink as complicated as sake?
It’s super important to reach new people with sake and bring them on the journey. It’s such a specialist and sometimes elitist drink in the UK, and we’re keen to break down any barriers and let curious drinkers experience the world of sake.
One of your earliest sake placements was with Selfridges and I believe their specialist reached out to you. As a new microbrewer at the time, what was that experience like?
It was incredible when Selfridges reached out – a true motivation to go from hobby to commercial and sort out all the paperwork!
As a specialist in producing craft sake, how does the Kanpai Brewery range of drinks differ from other brands?
Our signature style is typically full bodied and a little dry, suiting Western palates and food pairings. That said, at heart we are experimental, so we are always releasing new and seasonal sakes to keep things interesting, taking inspiration from the amazing craft beer scene in the UK.
Your sake has gained acclaim through winning awards like the 2018 International Wine and Spirit Competition Bronze award. What is involved in the process of submitting sake for competitions and do you plan on entering any others in future?
Competitions are great accolades – however they certainly come at a cost to enter! Therefore as a small startup we have to be selective and can only enter one type of sake into certain competitions – you feel bad for the others not getting a chance! We will likely enter similar competitions this year.
In addition to brewing sake, Kanpai also offers tasting tours and brewing experiences. Do you feel such experiences can help to make sake more accessible to people who are unaware of it?
Experiences are one of our favourite things we do. Our tours every Saturday are super popular and people ask great questions. We also host a series of hands-on workshops for people who want to go that step further. We also love hosting supperclubs where we pair our sakes to different cuisines – there’s always an amazing buzz!
What is your most popular type of sake and have you found that there are more buyers within London or outside of the city?
The most popular type of sake varies with the season – we see our sparkling FIZU flying out in the summer, and our versatilie clear SUMI very popular in the winter for its warm-up ability. London is certainly our most popular city, but we stock across the UK including lots of places in Manchester.
The debate between junmai and non-junmai sake is well-established. Do you feel that British consumers have a specific preference?
There is certainly a small scene of sake experts in the UK, but the average consumer and visitor to our tap room wouldn’t know the difference in the terminology. We prefer to lead with taste descriptions to make our sakes more familiar.
What is a typical sake-related day like for you and your husband Tom?
There truly is no typical day! However in the week it’s usually washing or steaming rice, making deliveries or thinking up new events! The weekend is all about the taproom and chatting to customers.
If you had to name one kind of sake that you enjoy drinking, what would it be and why?
We’d probably have to say kimoto or yamahai – those wild and interesting flavours! Some aged koshu are also very special. We do save some of each of our batches and are trying to be patient to see what the future holds for them!
Are there any plans to expand Kanpai outside of London in the future?
Right now London is our home – both personally and for Kanpai. However, we’re keen to make sure our sake is accessible across the UK and beyond.