While other Kiwis are now out exploring their own backyard and reconnecting with ‘home’, Queenstown’s Japanese population is also reconnecting with the things of ‘home’, but from the other side of the world.

Queenstown’s international gold award-winning sake brewery Zenkuro Sake has had something of a rush of Japanese locals keen to visit the brewery and see how sake is made, says head brewer and co-owner Dave Joll.

Dave (right) and his wife, Yasuko, who is explaining the health benefits of Cloudy Sake to a tour group last month (July).

There’s been a particular emphasis on the sake kasu – the pressed sake lees, a by-product of the brewing process. The greater emphasis on healthy options in the post-Covid environment makes sake kasu even more popular as it’s packed with great vitamins and nutrients, says Dave. For the Japanese, the health secrets are in the sake. Sake kasu is renowned in Japan for helping with all manner of health conditions. The feluric acid in the kasu is also considered to be a wonderful anti-aging property and its tyrosinase helps treat skin conditions like acne, eczema and psoriasis, says Dave.

Sake kasu also brings out the umami – subtle richness and tastiness – in food and is in high demand with chefs, so the new post-lockdown visitors are being handed recipes to take home with cooking tips from Dave’s Japanese wife Yasuko.

“We’ve been surprised by the amount of interest for brewery tours that’s come out of nowhere,” he says.  “A lot more Japanese locals, in particular, want to come in to the brewery as in reality most Japanese haven’t been to a sake brewery and they don’t know exactly how it’s made.”

There’s been a real nostalgia among Japanese locals, so far from home during the events of the Covid-19 crisis, says Dave. Their usual family food parcels of specialist Japanese ingredients that can’t be purchased in New Zealand haven’t been able to be sent by Mum back home. “In light of that I think our Japanese locals are really keen to sample some of their own local traditions here, rather than at home right now,” he says.

A group of Kiwi Japanese high school and university teachers, who would normally go to Japan at this time of year to do a full immersion in the language and culture, will come to Queenstown instead late next month (September). After an approach to visit Zenkuro’s brewery, Dave says the local Japanese community got together and they will offer the teachers calligraphy classes, origami, lessons with local sushi chefs and a Japanese bush hike conducted in Japanese.

Zenkuro Sake is also now exporting small amounts of sake to the Hong Kong boutique market with a new online focus overseas. During lockdown the company also began exporting to Australia through Sake Connect, a specialist sake distributor based in Melbourne and last year began exporting its sake to Japan – the home of sake. The first exports were sent to London in 2018.

In the past three years Zenkuro Sake has won five gold and silver medals at the highly sought-after London Sake Challenge, beating off Japan’s best.