Between the kitchenware shops that make up Kappabashi-dori and the area around Sensoji Temple is a recently opened British-style pub that brings something new to Tokyo’s drinking scene. Campion Ale not only stands out among the stalls that sell Japanese fare in Tokyo’s popular sightseeing spot Asakusa, but it is also among the first wave of pubs in the city to start brewing its own beer. (Other celebrated brewpubs in the city include Pangaea in Koyama and Koenji Bakushu Kobo in Koenji.)
“It’s all made in here and all fermented in (the building). It’s the same setup as a large-scale brewery, just everything’s smaller,” explains owner James Williams as he points out the setup behind the bar.
Everything from crushing the grains and mixing them with boiling water to allowing the mixture to ferment is done inside the pub — and customers can view the tanks that store the fermenting beer as they walk in. It takes 10 days to two weeks for one of Williams’ creations to reach the beer glass.
Campion Ale has seven tall tanks squeezed behind the bar that it uses for its entire operation: two for fermenting and five for serving. And when a beer proves popular and begins to run low, all Williams has to do is brew another batch.
But starting a small-scale brewery is far from simple. The bureaucratic red tape to get past is enough to give anyone a raging hangover.
“There are tons of legal issues. In order to make alcohol here, you need a proper license. The application for that and all the investigations that are done for that all goes through the tax offices,” says Williams. “Ultimately, they are interested in the alcohol tax and making sure that when you make and sell beer, you’re accounting for the tax that’s due.”
For Williams, it took six months and stacks of documents, business plans, recipes and inspections from local and national tax officials before he was finally granted the license. The entire time, he was required to rent the shop space, and even then there was the chance that his application would be rejected. Add to that the three-month brewing course he attended in Britain in order to hone his brewing skills, plus all the used and new furniture he imported from his home country to give his place a bit of a British pub feel, and you have a sizable and risky investment.
“I wanted to do something a little more creative,” says Williams, who didn’t let the language barrier prevent him from realizing his goal.
A pint will set you back ¥800, but it’s worth dishing out another ¥800 for a homemade steak pie — a perfect match for one of the dark ales on tap. Campion Ale may be far away from the usual drinking spots such as Shibuya or Roppongi, but the amount of work put into creating a pub with its own brewery makes this place a rarity in Tokyo’s bar scene.
Angela Erika Kubo is a freelance writer and bar lover based in Tokyo.