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London says 'kanpai' to sake as British brewers increase production

Microbrewery crowdfunds to meet demand just 18 months after launch

Japanese sake is gaining popularity in the U.K.    © Reuters

LONDON -- A couple in Southeast London is hoping to raise 22,000 pounds ($28,075) to double production of their award-winning sake as demand for Japanese rice wine grows in the capital.

Just 18 months after setting up in a small unit in a shared warehouse, Kanpai London Craft Sake Brewery has outgrown its premises and is hoping to move to a bigger site to meet demand for its sake which is now stocked at 17 shops, including luxury department store Selfridges. Its Kanpai Pure Junmai Sake was awarded the Bronze prize at the 2018 International Wine and Spirit Competition.

Co-founders Tom and Lucy Wilson launched their first London Craft Sake in June 2017 at a production site that measured just 350 sq. feet in Peckham in Southeast London.

Now, they are hoping to secure a new 2,000 sq. feet site that will house a larger brewery and a tap room to increase production to 12,000 bottles in the first year. They will offer fresh, unpasteurised namazake by the glass and in taster sets, at different temperatures, as well as in cocktails on site. They will also serve guests sakes from Japanese breweries.

Japanese sake exports reached another record high in 2017 at 54.5 billion yen ($492 million), marking a 27% increase over the previous year and a reflection of its growing popularity around the globe. One of the fastest growing destinations was the U.K., where exports surged by 2.8 times.

Kanpai London Craft Sake Brewery began life in the Wilsons' home with a beer home-brewing kit and koji-kin, an yeast, ordered off the internet after they visited Japan together in 2014. They fell in love with sake after visiting breweries and izakaya, drinking joints that also serve snacks and finger foods, across the country.

Tom Wilson, co-founder and head brewer, seals a bottle of Fizu, the sparkling sake Kanpai London Sake launched this spring. (Photo by Rhyannon Bartlett-Imadegawa)

"When we came back from that trip, we were already home-brewing beer, it's quite normal. We just tried to see if we could make sake," Tom said. He later attended a course at Gekkeikan Brew School in Kyoto.

Although their brewing method was traditional, their fundraising and sales channels were decidedly 21st century. They raised about 12,000 pounds through crowdfunding for more equipment and production units. They then posted their sake on Instagram through which Selfridges got in touch and organized an exclusive in-store launch last year.

With the expansion, they plan to host workshops and brewery tours to show the sake-making process. They are also hoping to export their sake as well, including to Japan.

Until now, the Wilsons have also been working full-time jobs and only dedicated evenings and weekends to the business. Tom, who is head brewer, has now quit his day job in marketing for a Swiss bank to focus sake-making.

Influenced by the booming craft beer scene in the U.K., they produced small, seasonal exclusive batches in different flavors by changing a single ingredient of the mix each time. The 330 ml bottles at first glance look like craft beer, but are intentionally kept small so that first-time consumers can afford to give them a try. Still, a 33 cl Kanpai Pure Junmai Sake is considerably expensive, selling at around £15 each.

"[We have made] half-sized bottles so it's a price point that hopefully people can have a bit of a go at trying it," said Lucy, who is head of communications.

Although they may change and experiment with flavors, a constant key ingredient is filtered London tap water, which they say makes their sake unique.

"That gives us our signature style because it's harder water here than in Japan typically, and the yeast loves harder water," said Lucy. Hard water makes drier sake, which means that the brewing temperature must be lowered so that the mineral-rich water won't over-activate the yeast, they said.

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