‘Kampai!’ – – For the Love of Sake

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

Sake is Japan’s best known libation. But outside of Japan, this mysterious beverage is not as well understood. For me, sake is a subject for which I have only basic knowledge.

I, like most people, was introduced to warm sake at Japanese restaurants and have even been known to do a “sake bomb” (a shot of sake dropped into a pint of beer) from time to time, long ago. But when I worked for an importer selling wine over a decade ago, I was introduced to the beauty and nuance of sake.

Kampai - Sake

An age-old staple of Japanese culture and cuisine, sake is made from rice. There are more than 70 different sake brewing rice types, and sake is categorized by how much each grain of sake brewing rice is polished or milled.


But sake continues to be a subject about which we know very little. While I was “bitten by the wine bug” and spend my time as a student of wine, there are others who have been “bitten by the sake bug.” Three of these people are profiled in a new documentary titled “Kampai! For the Love of Sake,” which has opened in theaters and is available on-demand.

From the rice paddies to the breweries to spreading the word around the world, these three people have made sake their life’s passion.

—The American: John Gauntner

Born in Ohio, Gauntner moved to Japan for one year to teach English through the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Program and never left. He fell in love with sake, learning everything he could about it. Gaunter is the only non-Japanese Certified Master of Sake, and today’s he is called the “sake evangelist.” He is a journalist, author and educator, helping to make sake understandable outside of Japan.

—The Brit: Philip Harper

Philip Harper

Harper studied English literature at Oxford and also moved to Japan to teach English through JET, ironically the same time as Gauntner. He spent 18 years working every aspect in a brewery and earned the title of master brewer in 2001. He is the first and only non-Japanese master brewer in a Japanese brewery and has been Master Sake Brewer at the Kinoshita Brewery in Kyoto since 2008.

—The Japanese: Kosuke Kuji

Kosuke Kuji

Kuji is the fifth-generation owner and president of Nanbu Bijin Brewery in the Iwate Prefectur. Kuji spent a year studying in America before returning to Japan to study the art of making sake and honing his craft. He travels the world, tirelessly promoting, educating and selling his sake, as well as sake overall. Coming from a long tradition of sake, Kuji is forward-thinking, being the first to create a certified Kosher and “no sugar added” plum sake made from koji rice and locally sourced green plums.

The documentary also profiled Daisuke Suzuki, a member of a sake dynasty, who lost his brewery in 2011 when the earthquake and tsunami hit Fukushima. It is tragic watching him visit the remains of the brewery and his beloved town, but his dedication to the craft of sake is apparent as he is determined to rebuild his business.

These individuals are all fervent about sake and share the common goal of promoting sake around the world. While sake has been growing approximately 10 percent per year, it needs to be promoted beyond the borders of Japan.

“Kampai! For the Love of Sake” is a love letter to sake. The film may not unravel the mysteries of sake but it showcases the enthusiasm of three people who are adapting the ancient tradition to the global market. Perhaps the enthusiasm and passion of those profiled in the film will encourage you to want to go out and learn more about sake. And maybe you will be bit by the “sake bug” as well. Kampai!

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.