Love brought Tony Mitchell to Japan, but sake became one of the reasons he stayed — as well as the reason he ultimately left. In 2011, Mitchell, now the production manager of the recently opened Dojima Sake Brewery, situated an hour and a half from London, moved to Fukuoka Prefecture to marry his long-distance sweetheart. He had been bitten by the sake bug on his previous trips to the country, and when a visit to Wakatakeya Sake Brewery in Fukuoka Prefecture resulted in an offer to work there for a season, he jumped at the chance: “I was like, ‘Hell, yes!'” he effuses, the enthusiasm palpable even via email.
His new bride, however, was less than thrilled. She balked at the long hours and relatively low pay. He pleaded; she resisted. Eventually she relented, after Mitchell promised to “get a real job” once the stint was over. He kept his word, taking a position at the British Embassy in Tokyo four months later, but the dream of making sake lingered.
“After having a near-religious experience in the brewery, I was always thinking about how to get back to being a brewer,” he recalls.
Once again, fate intervened. He met the Hashimoto family, owners of Kotobuki Brewing Co. Ltd., which produces Tonda sake in Osaka Prefecture, at an embassy event. Fascinated with British history and culture, the Hashimotos had relocated to the U.K. and began contemplating building a sake brewery in the Cambridge area after purchasing Fordham Abbey, a picturesque country estate with extensive gardens and a Georgian manor. When Mitchell heard of their plans, he told the Hashimotos that he wanted to work for them. Initially they “kind of laughed” at the suggestion, but in late 2016 they called him with a job offer. Mitchell was ecstatic (after considerable negotiation, his wife begrudgingly approved of the move).
The new brewery, which opened on Sept. 14 this year, is housed in a vast, asymmetric building with a sloping red roof and a matching facade. The windows on the west wall are aligned to create the kanji for sake (酒). The design is striking and contemporary, a counterpoint to the classical beauty of the manor house, which was built in 1790. Although the project was slated to launch in December of last year, construction setbacks delayed brewing until March, which meant that Mitchell, together with consulting brewer Toshiyuki Mizohata (who usually advises via messaging apps from Osaka), “had to brew in the hottest summer that the U.K. has seen in 40 years” — no small challenge in a building with no air conditioning. Despite the early difficulties, Mitchell posits that Dojima’s sake is “as good as most of the sake I’ve tasted in Japan,” noting that “the winter stuff should be even better.”
The brews have earned praise from experts such as sake educator and consultant Natsuki Kikuya, who sampled the first batch: “On the nose it had gentle tropical fruit aromas of guava and lychee, with subtle herbaceous notes of lemongrass. It was pure, well-balanced and elegant,” she observes. “I suspect most of us would not be able to tell the difference between Japanese sake in a blind test.”
At the moment, Dojima’s three unpasteurized varieties are only available on-site. Brewery tours will begin soon but Mitchell says that they have “big plans for a sake academy where you can study about sake culture as well as learn to brew,” in addition to “pop-up events with top chefs.” He continues, “There is also a Japanese pottery workshop being built and plans for a sake shrine and spa. It’s off the scale what they want to do here, and very exciting to be a part of it.”
Exciting, indeed. I plan to visit Dojima Sake Brewery when I head to the U.K. for the International Wine Challenge in April.
For more information about Dojima Sake Brewery, visit dojimabrewery.com.