Growing up, I’d always thought that drinking before dusk was considered something of a no-no. When my friend suggested on a recent Sunday that we stop by Koenji Bakushu Kobo to try some jikasei (homemade) beer at 3 p.m., I pushed it to the more respectable hour of 5. By the time we arrived, though, the crowd was spilling out of the bar with plastic cups of beer in hand. Clearly, I was the only person with qualms about afternoon tippling.
As we waited for a table to open up, my companion shot me an I-told-you-so look of reproach. I should have guessed that the bar would be packed: These days, Japan’s craft-beer scene is booming. The drink peaked for the first time in the late 1990s, when changes to legislation granted licenses to breweries producing an annual minimum of 60 kiloliters. Since 2005, the volume of craft beer made in Japan has increased steadily, with some breweries seeing year-on-year growth of as much as 40 percent.
In Tokyo alone, there are more than 100 bars and restaurants specializing in domestic and imported craft beer. Bona fide brewpubs, however, remain rare. The most established is T.Y. Harbor Brewery, located on Tennozu Isle, which started production in 1997. Campion, a pub brewing British-style ales in the heart of touristy Asakusa, joined the scene in 2013. Although popular bars DevilCraft and Watering Hole are also expected to turn into brewpubs, neither has begun making beer on site.
Koenji Bakushu Kobo is the brainchild of beer enthusiast Kakyu Nomura, a former advertising executive who quit his job to open the brewpub in 2010. Hidden in a residential pocket of Tokyo’s Suginami Ward, the bar has the relaxed feel of a neighborhood hangout. It’s a small, intimate space with a handmade wooden interior that conjures memories of summer camp. Patrons can choose from an ever-changing selection of four original ales on tap, each marked with the batch number and production date, with prices starting at ¥390 a glass. The success of Koenji Bakushu Kobo has prompted Nomura to expand to two locations in nearby Asagaya and Ogikubo. Another branch in Nakano is set to open soon.
The company’s name, Bakushu Kobo, translates as Beer Workshop, and the brews, though promising, are still a work in progress. Nomura experiments with flavor profiles by adjusting recipes frequently. All of the beers are unfiltered, fresh and light on the palate, if a little rustic. The white ale was lively and quaffable at only 4 percent alcohol by volume, but the yeasty flavor reminded me more of wort than finished beer. The bitter cream ale was the most balanced of the four brews we sampled. With a rich amber hue and fruity notes of pineapple preceding a hoppy midpalate, the beer displayed mild sweetness on the finish.
I may not become a regular, but I’m keen to return in a year. The exciting thing about a work in progress is watching a great idea develop.
Melinda Joe is an American journalist in Tokyo and a certified wine and sake professional. She blogs at tokyodrinkingglass.blogspot.com.