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Meet the banker and the scientist behind the UK's first Japanese sake brewery

Tom Wilson and Lucy Holmes operate Britain’s only sake brewery (Picture: Kanpai)

Britain’s first sake brewery is quickly building a reputation for itself.

The brainchild of Tom Wilson and Lucy Holmes, Kanpai is set to begin selling its sake in upmarket department store Selfridges from next month.

And it’s all being run from a small warehouse in Peckham, south east London – as they balance full-time jobs with a weekend hobby “that just got a bit out of hand”.

Their love affair with the Japanese drink sake really took off after visiting the country three years ago.

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Wilson used to brew his own beer and they thought they would give making their own sake a try.

And Kanpai – which translates as “cheers” – is taking off.

“Selfridges has a sake specialist and they came to us, she found us through social media,” she says. “We’re very new to micro-brewing, we wanted to get everything up and running, check we could do it, but since they came to us, we wanted to seize the opportunity.”

She said her partner had been “partial” to sake for a lot longer than her, having lived in New York for a time where America is “ahead of the curve” on sake.

“We went to Japan, and every town we went to, we found their local sake brewery, had a look round, had a taste.

“Tom had his own home brew gear and just said ‘do you think I could make sake?’.”

The first batch tasted “surprisingly good” and it went from there.

A couple of the bottles of Kanpai sake (Kanpai)

Holmes, 29, and 31-year-old Wilson are more than just partners in the fledgling business, they are also set to marry next weekend.

That adds its own challenges. “There are definitely points of stress when something breaks, as you can imagine,” she says.

“It is strange working with your partner – Tom is on the brewing side, I pick up the talking side, the media.

“We have tried to carve roles but we both do everything. As a couple, you can be brutally honest with each other.”

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And they’d love to give up their 9-5 jobs – he works in financial services for a Swiss bank in Mayfair, she is in science communication – to embark on their sake venture full-time.

“That is the dream, that would be fantastic,” says Holmes.

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The process of brewing and fermenting sake – and it is brewing not distilling – is a tricky one. They have to make their own equipment, buying pumps and pipes and clips from DIY stores.

Unlike the craft brewing scene, there are no pumps or fermentation equipment to be bought off the shelf.

The special sake rice has to be imported from the US and it is an eight-week period from washing the rice, steam cooking it, mixing with yeast and koji, and allowing to ferment before bottling. It’s a very meticulous process, where slight variations in temperatures can ruin a batch.

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“We do have those moments when we think ‘this is mad’,” adds Holmes.

Such is the rapid growth that Kanpai is planning to launch a crowdfunding campaign to get to the next level. Up until now, the venture has been funded out of their pockets, hence the need to maintain their day jobs.

They have plans to explore sparkling and flavoured sakes but they are keen to take it step by step.