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The world of Japanese saké as seen in Kampai! For the Love of Sake

This heartwarming documentary tells us that sake is so much more than just a drink


Anyone who has tried good sake (pronounced sah-keh) can attest to the initial simplicity behind the drink giving way to depth and flavor. Drinking sake is an ancient tradition amongst the Japanese people, and can be found mentioned as far back as the 3rd century. Sake, or nihonshu (literally, Japanese liquor) as it is known in Japan, is very much intertwined with the culture of Japan, and is considered one of the country’s national beverages.

Fascination with nihonshu is growing throughout the world, and it’s rapidly becoming more popular in the west with the rise of sake bars and western sake breweries. But how much do we know about the craft of sake making? Kampai! For the Love of Sake, a documentary directed by Mirai Konishi, presents an ode to the beloved drink, and shows us the complexity behind the creation and the commitment of the people who brew and share it.

This truly international documentary, which was released in 2015, takes us from Kyoto and Osaka, to London, New York, and beyond. It serves as a testament to Japan’s long history of nihonshu brewing as we travel to important sites around the country, but it also stands as a monument to sake’s modern history as a drink that is enjoyed around the globe.

During the documentary we’re introduced to three individuals from vastly different backgrounds. John Gauntner, from Cleveland, USA, who now gives lectures and has written books on sake; Philip Harper, from the UK, who has become a master brewer and works at the Kinoshita brewery in Kyoto; and Kosuke Kuji, the son of a brewer, who took over the family business (Nambu Bijin) after spending time in the USA. How each of them came to walk the sake path is nothing short of fascinating, and it is truly endearing to see their love for the craft, and for their colleagues, shine as we move through the documentary.

Sake is brewed from rice, water, and yeast, but the process itself is difficult, time-consuming, and requires great focus and commitment from the brewers. This is something that’s hard to miss as you watch Kampai. Through several beautiful montages in the documentary we can see the intensely hands-on and laborious process which goes into sake-making.

Philip tells us about his long days brewing, often from 5:30 am to 9 pm alongside his colleagues, and we can see his true passion shining through. Philip’s manager at the brewery states that, despite there initially being many reservations about a British person joining the brewery, he concedes that, “you don’t need to be Japanese to possess samurai-like discipline.”

Nihonshu is made by polishing rice to remove the outer layer of rice, and is fermented later. Interestingly, this means that it doesn’t qualify as a spirit but is closer to beer, based on the brewing process.

The rice is steamed in such a way as to be dryer and firmer on the outside and softer and moist on the inside. This encourages the koji (mold) to grow toward the center where most of the starch lies. Koji spores are sprinkled on to the rice which creates enzymes as it grows and breaks down the starch. It’s then left to ferment.

Naturally, brewing sake in this way without aid takes much longer, and is more difficult to control, but it has a much deeper taste and this dynamic taste is what many sake brewers strive for, and are proud of, despite the hard work.

Philip jokes that the koji is one of the reasons that mushrooms and sake traditionally go very well together, since they are both fungus. There are many theories when it comes to which food should be paired with sake, John mentions, but actually there are no formal “rules” like there are with wine, meaning you can enjoy it freely.

Traditionally, sake brewery owners were not meant to interfere in the brewing of sake, just promote sales and be the face of the company. This caused many problems for Kosuke who wanted to be involved in the development of sake. He mentions how he was frequently ignored when he tried to make changes, but he persevered and the brewery ended up winning gold prizes for his sake. He took the initiative to only hire freshmen once the older members began to retire; they had no problem taking orders from him and so the company grew. This shows how the sake industry has changed as it took its place as part of Japan’s modern economy.

The documentary also shows how the sake industry was affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011. Based in Iwate, one of the most affected areas by the disaster, Kosuke truly believed that he was witnessing the end of sake. People were encouraged to avoid daily luxuries, and yet much of the economy in the area relied on the sake trade. Many local breweries in the area were destroyed. He talks of how he went against customs (facing a great deal of political backlash) and headed to social media to spread the work and encourage people to drink sake from the affected regions and, in doing so, help the local people there. His video was picked up everywhere from local media to the BBC and the New York Times. Sake is truly becoming a global drink.

As seen in this documentary, sake brewing is an ever changing field. One of the poignant messages the documentary leaves you with is the saying: ‘you’re a beginner every year’: Even though the brewing method stays constant, the sake and the job is never the same. The learning, just like any craftsmanship, continues for life.

It’s also astounding to see the attention and care that goes into the making of the drink. You will witness how everyone interviewed in the documentary is truly passionate about sake – it’s clearly more than a drink to them, as it is to many Japanese people. It is, in fact, their legacy.

Text: Jessica Esa