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Everything you need to know about sake

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Everything you need to know about sake
From how it's made to the best food to pair it with, learn more about sake, an alcoholic drink that’s synonymous with Japan
A rice wine that was developed in ancient China and then refined in Japan, sake is an alcoholic beverage that is made from fermenting rice. But you don't have to look to Japan for fine sake—meet KANPAI (meaning "cheers" in Japanese), the UK's first sake brewery, established in 2016 by husband and wife, Tom and Lucy Wilson.
"You don't have to look to Japan for fine sake—meet KANPAI, the UK's first sake brewery"
Crafting contemporary British style sakes using traditional techniques, it's all made by hand, in small batches from their south London brewery. Want to learn more about this historic tipple? Lucy shares her guide to sake. 

What is sake and where does it come from? 

Sake is a unique fermented beverage made from rice. Sake is made from four key ingredients: rice, water, yeast and koji—a magic mould, also used to make soy and miso.  
You can expect a sake to be somewhere around 15 per cent ABV, so just a little stronger than wine, and very sippable. 
KANPAI. Photo © Olivia Rawes
Its roots are Japanese and stretch back more than 500 years. There are sake breweries stretching across Japan, using many different varieties of rice and brewing styles—it’s an incredible world to dip your toe into!  
In more recent decades, sake has started to be produced in other countries around the world—it has a good scene in the USA, and KANPAI is very proud to be the first sake brewery in the UK, launched in 2016. 

How is sake produced? 

Brewing sake is an intricate process. The brewer’s technique as well as the rice type and milling rate all have a huge impact on the style and flavours you get in the finished drink.  
Brewing a premium sake typically takes around three months, plus an additional two to six months for typical maturation times (and into years if not decades for aged styles).  
KANPAI. Photo © Olivia Rawes.
The key steps are to polish, wash, soak and steam the rice. Then a portion of this steamed rice is inoculated with millions of tiny koji spores and incubated. This incubation enables the mould to grow within the rice, creating the necessary enzymes required to turn the humble rice grain into sake. This koji rice is combined with freshly steamed rice inside a fermentation vessel, alongside water and yeast starter culture, then fermentation begins.  
"Brewing sake is an intricate process"
Over several weeks the rice is broken down by these enzymes into simple sugars, which in turn are fermented by the yeast into alcohol; during this time in tank the sake also develops its complex personality. Once the tank is deemed ready, the ricey liquid is moved into the “pressing” machine which removes any solids, leaving the clear liquid that we know as sake.  
The sake is finally bottled, pasteurised and matured before enjoying. At KANPAI, we use bespoke modern equipment to compliment traditional Japanese brewing techniques. 

What makes a good sake? 

Sakes can range from light and floral to rich and full of umami. Sake is not just one thing, it’s an entire plethora of flavour, aroma and texture to explore. So, much like wines and beers, there is a huge sake world to explore to find out which style you enjoy.  
"Sakes can range from light and floral to rich and full of umami"
Typically, more premium sakes will be called “Junmai”, meaning they haven’t had any spirit alcohol added to the product. Also, premium sakes called “ginjo” style are made from rice which has a higher polishing rate and are usually more delicate and nuanced to drink. Then there are many different types of rice itself that give different flavour profiles. There is huge variety in sake—that's what keeps it so interesting! 

What are the best food pairings? 

Sake is a great flavour enhancer—it doesn’t fight with food. It’s full of umami so it can pair with all types of food, from traditional Japanese to western foods and even desserts. It intensifies what you are eating and the possibilities are endless.  
KANPAI. Photo © Olivia Rawes
We enjoy our cloudy sake KUMO with prawn pasta and our HANA plum sake with a bakewell tart. It is also great to cook with sake itself—we use it in risotto! 
KANPAI are moving to London Bridge in autumn 2023. Come visit our brewery for tours and taproom/kitchen for good times! 
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