Recently, I got a chance to interview Beer Tengoku a beer review site about Japanese breweries and the local craft beer scene in Tokyo. Are you interested in Japan craft beer? Go ahead and read further.
Interview with Rob from Beer Tengoku:
1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you ended up in Japan?
My name is Rob Bright and I’ve been in Japan since 2004. I graduated from a UK university and was bitten by the travel bug. I had a friend working over here who convinced me that English teaching was a way to earn money and then travel around both Japan and Asia before returning home to find a job in computing.
2. What got you interested in starting up a beer review site and who would be your audience?
I’ve always been a fan of beer, and have always enjoyed finding new ones. The trouble with being in Japan is that there hasn’t been much information in English about beer besides the macro world of Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Orion. It was when I was sitting in a small bar in Kannai that Joe and I decided to start a site aimed at the English speaking market. Our audience is for anyone who likes to try new beers and going out with their friends to bars.
3. How long have you been running it and who else runs the site with you?
The site started in June 2014 – quite recently, but we’ve had the idea for a couple of years, but didn’t know how to approach it. I met Joe in 2005 through a mutual friend out drinking in Fujisawa. It was quite challenging at first to come up with an approach that both Joe and myself were happy with. At the moment, there is Joe Robson and myself who are actively involved, and also Hiroaki Sueki who has been a great help in getting some of the larger, more challenging articles translated into Japanese.
4. What are some of your best experiences while reviewing beer in Japan?
The general friendly nature of beer drinkers in Japan has been, on the whole, one of the best experiences. It’s been nice to be able to sit down in a bar and strike up conversation with people about the beer they are drinking and the next thing you know, you’ve moved on from that conversation and talking about other topics.
Getting feedback as well from readers has also helped us to craft what the articles should turn out like. It’s easy to write something that I wanted to read but hearing readers’ thoughts about our articles and their opinions on beers is also welcoming.
Finally, meeting the brewers and people behind the beers that we drink is eye-opening – no one brewery or approach is the same. We’ve seen small one-man breweries, to what could be considered massive breweries compared to the smaller ones. High-tech labs with the latest equipment to simple equipment for making sure everything is as it should be.
5. What makes a good craft beer for you?
A good craft beer should fit the style it’s labeled as. There is no point making a stout that doesn’t have good stout qualities, such as coffee and chocolate flavours, or an American IPA that has more malt taste than hops. If the basics are there, then more usually than not, it’s a good start to a beer.
However, what makes a great beer is tough, and more often than not, it’s subjective. I’m sure we’ve had beers that have made our heads turn and we’ve raved about them, but then a reader hasn’t enjoyed it as much, or not at all.
6. Do you have a beer brewing background?
My dad used to homebrew back in the 80s and 90s and I would help him out, before a catastrophic amount of exploding demi-johns put an end to that experiment. I used to homebrew myself in the UK and enjoyed the whole process from start to finish. Brewing in Japan is very much a grey area and is something that needs to be addressed by the Japanese government. I would like to brew in Japan but until the law is changed, it’s a risky situation as the legal amount for alcohol that is brewed at home is 1% or less.
7. How do you distinguish the taste of different craft beers? For example, the difference between amber ale and an IPA?
Reading about beer styles helps a lot. There are so many different styles of beer though that it makes it hard to know about all of them in one go, so before I write a review about a beer, I do some research on its style. Some of the rarer styles in Japan, such as smoke beers, also known as rauchbier, have a very fine between their descriptions and can cause issues. Moreover, reading the brewer’s description of their beer also helps with the style as well. Some breweries put a lot of information out about the ingredients, while others do not put any information out at all.
8. If you had to recommend 3 craft beer bars in Tokyo to visit for my audience, what would you recommend? Also, what would be your top three in Japan?
A tough question as it depends on what is on tap at any one time and also the price. Not putting any of these in any order but the three I would recommend would be:
1) Craft Beer Market chain – pints are cheap, plenty of locations, and a wide variety of beers on tap at all the branches. The only downside is the table charge they add on at the end of the bill. All prices do include tax and some of the branches have outside areas too – perfect for some summer drinking.
2) Devilcraft a Tokyo Brewery– they started out selling pizza and craft beer and now they have their own brewery too. They’ve started out really well, making some great craft beers, one even won world’s best Imperial Stout too this year. Great atmosphere at all the branches and sometimes you can meet the brewers in the restaurants too.
3) Baird Beer – they have three locations in Tokyo, all of which offer a different theme on food, ranging from pizza, to yakitori, to kushiage. Plenty of choice on tap and the stamp card makes the beers even cheaper.
Of course, there are other bars such as Watering Hole (Yoyogi) Gremlin (Hatagaya), Popeyes (Ryogoku) that also deserve a mention too.
Best craft beer places in Japan…
1) Bungalow in Kyoto- I loved the chilled atmosphere and range of beers down there. Friendly owners and really nice food on tap. Great to relax in the downstairs area after a long day of walking around Kyoto.
2) Craft Beer Base Bud in Osaka- Sells imported and domestic craft beer and the staff are really knowledgeable. They also have a craft beer bottle bar around the corner if you want to buy some to take home.
3) Mugishutei in Sapporo- Phred Kaufman has been a resident in Sapporo for thirty years, and this bar sells imported and domestic craft beer. Plenty of choice for everyone and a great atmosphere for you to chill out . Maybe play some table football
9. Does your website host any events in Tokyo for craft beer lovers?
Not yet, but we are thinking of doing some, if the demand is there.