“Brewed like a beer, but enjoyed like a wine.” Meet Kanpai

Making sake in your living room isn’t exactly the most obvious thing for couples to do on their weekends together but for now husband and wife Tom and Lucy, that became a standard Saturday.

After a trip to Japan several years ago, the pair were inspired to start up their own (and the UK’s first) sake brewery, Kanpai. Now a couple of years and a bit of Crowdfunding later, they’ve upped sticks from the front room and moved to a small but perfectly formed unit in Peckham producing two genuinely delicious sake varieties and joining the top-dogs of London’s Craft Beer scene.

We went down one Saturday morning to find out more about them and their business while trying some sake far too early in the morning…

Tell us a bit about yourselves and Kanpai?
“We’re Lucy and Tom Wilson, and we run the UK’s first sake brewery! It’s called ‘Kanpai’ because that means ‘cheers’ in Japanese to toast your drink. We produce our craft sake with a dry and full-bodied London style.

“Sake is quite unfamiliar to people in the UK, but we believe once you’re able to explore the varieties within it and what you can do with it, loads of curious drinkers will fall in love with it like we have. On its own, with food, in cocktails – the possibilities are endless! We say it’s “brewed like a beer, but enjoyed like a wine”. But actually it doesn’t fit into any category we know (spirits, wine, beer), it’s a complete enigma, which makes it so intriguing.”

How did you get the idea for Kanpai?
“We never really had an idea as such, in fact it’s more of an out-of-control hobby. We visited a lot of sake breweries on our trip first trip to Japan a few years ago and got a real taste for sake – from bold and dry to light and fruity – then when we came back, we just fancied having a go at home. At first we just shared our home-brews with friends and family… it’s spiralled since then!”

What do you love about your job?
Tom: “The brewing. I love being absorbed in the rice and honing techniques, it’s a very tricky process.”

Lucy: “It’s the opportunity to meet so many new people for me. Doing tasting sessions is awesome and we love sharing something so new and fresh at events. The brewing is fun too!”

Tell us about some really stand-out moments for the business?
“We were really fortunate and excited to launch in Selfridges, thanks to a super sake expert there who spotted us on social media. The other highlight was our successful crowdfunding launch in May – we were wowed by the support and it allowed us to rent an extra unit and get some fab equipment. Obviously sake equipment doesn’t exist in the UK so we have to be inventive!”

What are the future plans for the business?
“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 (Japanese pub) style.”

Who are you inspired by in the craft brewing industry?
“It’s hard to pick, so many breweries across London inspire us but a firm favourite is Kernel; it’s so simple and has such a clear focus.

“We also love Brick, our local brewery in Peckham. We’ve created a really special and different collaboration beer with them. In our brewing process, we hang our sake in cotton sacks called the ‘drip press’ – and inside the bags collects leftover solid pieces of rice. This is called sake lees or sake kasu – it’s full of live yeast, koji and amino acids and Brick used this to kick start a beer – it’s savoury and citrusy and delicious!”

What was the best sake you’ve ever had and where did you have it?
Tom: “It’s a really difficult, if not an impossible question to answer – I tend to lean towards more robust, full bodied and savoury sakes with “high umami” – so I’m a big fan of Junmai, in particular kimoto and yamahai varieties. On a recent brewing trip to Kyoto, one of the breweries I visited was Shoutoku Shuzo in Fushimi, their toji (master brewer) is female which is not so common in Japan, and she makes an amazing Junmai Kimoto called Karaku.”

Lucy: “It’s a sake called ‘John’ from Tosa Brewing Company, Japan (but available online and in shops in London). I first had it at a tasting event in Japan Embassy London (we’re lucky to get invited to incredible things now!). Unlike many sparkling sakes that are super sweet, this one is dry and still nice and strong. So refreshing and moreish!”

Sake has a bit of a reputation, what would you say to people who are a little wary of trying it?
“Sake isn’t scary! If you’re new to sake, don’t worry about brands, just take a look at the style. If you prefer light and subtle white wines, look for a daiginjo as this is quite often more elegant, fruity and refined. If you like your drinks bolder and richer, go for a junmai which tend to be more full-bodied. If you like sweeter wines, eye up sparkling varieties or koshu (an aged variant that can have similarities to certain sherries). Or if you really want to try something different, go for a nigori, this has a different texture entirely with some rice sediment left in it – often fruity and perhaps sweeter, a good match for dessert.

“If you want to enjoy sake in a fun bar set up head to 7 Tales in Farringdon or Matilda’s at My Neighbours the Dumplings in Hackney. If you want a leisurely restaurant experience try Sakagura just off Regent Street, or Nanban in Brixton. Or if you want to buy and try at home, head to Hedonism, Japan Centre or Selfridges – who have specialists on hand to help you.

“And if you want something very fresh and a little different, take a look at our stuff! We’re mixing up things and creating bigger, bolder flavours in our sake;  the sort of sakes that can stand up to a Sunday roast or your favourite curry. Think of crisp apples and fresh melon, to dry, woody and smokey notes. It’s also good to remember that sake is pretty pure – ours is vegan, sulphite-free, gluten-free and preservative-free – so almost hangover free too! It’s also packed with amino acids; in Japan it’s used in loads of cosmetics!”

Things started after a trip to Japan, where were your favourite places to eat/drink there?
“Our first sips of sake in Tokyo were in the lively streets of Shibuya, to wash down yakitori sticks. As we travelled around Japan we fell in love with it more and more – especially when fresh straight from the breweries, we remember visiting some wonderful traditional breweries in Takayama. We also loved the contrasting experience of drinking sake whilst exploring the tiny secret bars tucked away in Osaka’s backstreets. We don’t recall the names of anywhere, it’s a place simply to uncover and discover what’s behind those curtains!”

How do you keep motivated?
“Good question! It’s really tough working full time in desk jobs and squeezing Kanpai into the evenings and weekends, often at the sacrifice of social events. We’re actually motivated by each other. On the down days, the other will help bring perspective and remind us to feel proud of what we’re achieving but it’s not all rosy, working as a couple means a lot of very honest tiffs that you wouldn’t have with a normal colleague!”

Where do you call home?
“We met in a bar in London seven years ago, and have lived together in Peckham for five. So here is definitely home. Peckham is vibrant, full of start-ups and a wonderful mix of cultures.”

Favourite places to drink there?
“You’ll find us drinking at the shop ‘Hop Burns and Black’ and Brick brewery. Also, the Flying Pig is very special to us as that’s where we gathered everyone we love for our wedding reception earlier this year. They still have the yellow wheat decorations Lucy’s mum made.”

Favourite spots for eating out there?
“We tend to enjoy relaxed street food over and above restaurants. Slow Richie’s burgers are second to none, but best make sure you have plenty of tissues as they’re so juicy. Also, the North African stall on Rye Lane cooks up fresh bread to wrap around freshly grilled meats and homemade hummus. We’re also spoilt that ‘Taco Queen’ have moved into a permanent spot on Rye Lane – Mexican done on point – their pulled Jackfruit is incredible! Oh, and we can’t forget the magic of Persepolis.

What do you khoollect?
“No surprises here – sake bottles! The labels are often so beautiful. Small bottles are shaped perfectly for flowers and the cup-styles are great for candles.”

The favourite item in your collection?
“The sake bottle we cracked open during our wedding ceremony. It was a special premium competition-grade sake, generously given to us by visitors we had from Japan. We performed ‘san-san-kudo’ in our ceremony, where our parents came up and we all drank sake from the same three cups to symbolise the joining of our families!”

How do you spend a lazy Sunday?
“Lazy Sundays are a distant memory. We’re up the brewery most Sundays now or busy doing deliveries. But before those days we used to have a ‘Sunday club’ with friends that lived locally – sampling all the local pubs, their boardgames, quizzes and ignoring Monday on the horizon!”

If not in London where would you be?
“Lucy grew up in Norfolk and Tom around Portsmouth so we both miss the beaches and green space. Plus we have more and more little people popping up in our families so it would be nicer to be closer to home. But Kanpai’s roots are firmly in London!”

What’s one piece of advice you’d tell your younger self?
“Learn a language. When we’re brewing we often have Japanese language audio training playing but it’s so tough! Also, I’d tell myself “people won’t remember what you do but how you make them feel.” And always be curious! Travel as much as you can. Try new things. Ask questions.”

One piece of advice for someone wanting a career change or to go out on their own?
“Do it! And don’t do it perfectly. You don’t need to jump straight in with both feet and leave the comfortable salary life. Test it small and invite friends and family to tear it apart and help you improve. You’d be amazed at how much support people want to give when you’re doing something off your own back. Things develop and you control the speed, give it a go and you might find something else unearths itself. But make sure you truly believe in it – you’ll need that to keep you going when things get tough.”

Like this story? Tell us in the comment section below. If you have any other small businesses you’d like us to interview, let us know too! 

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