Noble BrewSake Brewing in Cambridgeshire
“You must receive special permission to make this variety of sake ... It is an ancient method, and was traditionally reserved for the nobility."
Yoshihide Hashimoto is one of an esteemed line of sake brewers from the Kansai region of Japan. He was born at the family brewery – established in 1822 – where he grew up and worked from the age of 22 to 46. His elder brother, the sixth generation brewer, inherited the director’s seat, allowing the younger Yoshihide to innovate and pursue untraditional avenues: he was the first to brew craft beer in the Kansai region, and – now in his late 60s – has become the first to build a sake brewery in the United Kingdom.
The brewery, called Dojima, surrounds an 18th century Georgian manor on the Fordham Abbey estate in Cambridgeshire, and completed its first batch in 2018. “I think the standard of the sake here is really close to that of Japan, which is great for our first year. We can only keep improving on that,” says Hashimoto. The brewery currently produces two sake varieties, Dojima, and Cambridge. The former is bottled in tinted glass, and is brewed to be enjoyed within the year; the latter is presented in transparent glass, and is intended to improve with age. The bottles are stored in the Abbey cellars for five years, during which the clear liquid takes on a remarkably rich, dark colour. Kenya Hara, creative director of MUJI and Japan House, designed the labels for the bottles, having met Hashimoto’s wife at Japan House’s London outpost.
Cambridge is a kijoshu sake, a rare variety, made by adding existing sake to the brew in place of water, which creates a layered and refined flavour. “You must receive special permission to make this variety of sake,” says Hashimoto. “Our brewery is one of very few that are licensed to do so. It is an ancient method, and was traditionally reserved for the nobility – the word kijoshu means ‘noble brew’ in Japanese. Today, aged sake makes up around only 5% of the sake produced globally, and kijoshu is even rarer.”
Dojima have recently launched their first batches for sale, with both varieties of sake priced at 1,000 GBP a bottle. However, brewery tours provide a more accessible avenue for tasting the sake. Led by brewer Tony Mitchell, visitors wend through the large, barn-like building – painted a bright, crimson red on its exterior – that houses the vast stainless-steel vats, presses, steamers and other machinery involved in the brewing.
The process begins with sake rice, grown in Japan especially for the purpose, which is polished to remove much of the rice’s proteins and oils. The resulting grains are more consistent, refined, and oval-shaped, but somewhat lacking in flavour. Once the rice has been delivered to Dojima, it is washed, steeped, and steamed in enormous quantities, then mixed with a mould and cultivated for 48 hours, in a room kept at 35 degrees. This allows the mould to develop over the rice, reinstating complex flavours to the grains – a process broadly analogous to malting in beer production.
This rice and mould mixture is called koji, and is mixed with water, more steamed rice, and a yeast starter – called shubo – in a large vat on the first day of brewing. The brew is left on the second day, which is known as Odori in Japanese; meaning ‘the dance’. On the third and fourth days, the same quantities of koji, steamed rice, and water are added. In the kijoshu method, this is where the previously brewed sake is added instead of water. By subduing the yeast, it causes residual sugar to be left in the final brew, thereby allowing the sake to age. The brew continues in the vat for 20 to 30 days, after which it is placed in large, heavy sacks, and pressed every 30 minutes for 48 hours, to extract the sake. This is the most physically arduous and demanding part of the process, requiring regular checking and pressing of the sacks throughout the night. The sake is then bottled, and in the kijoshu’s case, stored in the cellars to age. Both sakes can be enjoyed slightly chilled or warmed, and possess a complex flavour of acidity, umami, and sweetness akin to that of a honeydew melon.
Placing emphasis on Dojima as a place of learning, Hashimoto wishes to open a sake academy here, where brewers will learn the traditional methods of sake brewing. Extensive renovations are currently underway in the redbrick manor, in order to create accommodation for the academy attendees. Dojima are also pursuing further plans for the estate, beyond the brewing of sake. “We want to showcase many different facets of Japanese culture,” says Hashimoto. “We are building a pottery workshop to demonstrate the beauty of Japanese pottery, but also to teach people how to make it. We want to invite chefs to join us in residence, and to pair Japanese cuisine with the sake,” he says. “The estate will be a living expo of Japanese culture, with sake at its heart.”