Pair turn passion for craft beer into guide to Japan’s scene

by Daniel Traylor

Staff Writer

Rob Bright and Joe Robson aren’t quite ready to quit their day jobs, but they certainly wouldn’t complain if they could turn their website chronicling Japan’s craft beer scene into a full-time gig.

The idea for was born one night in early 2014, as the Kanto-based pair sampled “quite a few beers” at a Yokohama shop specializing in craft imports from the United States, Bright and Robson explain.

“I said, ‘Joe — think of a name for a website,'” Bright recalls. They spent some time writing down a few ideas on a napkin about what the site could include. “I emailed Joe the next day and said, ‘By the way, I bought the name. I set it up — let’s do it!'”

Robson says his memory of the previous night was a bit foggy. “I said, ‘What are you talking about?'”

Today, the site offers a wealth of information on craft beer in Japan, including reviews of brews and bars, information on where to get beer to go, interviews with brewers and the occasional “soap box” essay highlighting various topics related to craft beer. It started out mostly in English, but they’ve been adding Japanese translations to most articles in recent months. Eventually, they want the site to be totally bilingual.

Bright, 36, a teacher of math and science, and Robson, 34, who teaches English at a high school, say the site’s independence is what makes it stand out.

“We’ve kept plugging away at this without running ads and without a break for almost four years,” Robson says.

That independence, they stress, gives them freedom to criticize beers or bars they don’t like. And they don’t hold back. For example, a Dec. 18 BeerTengoku Twitter post featured a photo of a black ale with garlic made by a small brewery, with a word of warning attached: “We drink this s—- so you don’t have to. Make sure you do your research before spending your hard earned cash.” On the website, the beer was photographed in a toilet, captioned “The best place for this beer.”

However, it’s usually just the more extreme beers that draw such heated criticism. Most reviews are measured, focusing on a few key characteristics. In the end, they let readers know where they can buy or try the beer, regardless of whether the authors loved it or hated it.

Besides independence, Bright and Robson point to interaction with their audience as another selling point for the site. “We’re always chatting to people both in Japanese and English, online and off, about beer and the site,” Robson says.

Both Bright and Robson came to Japan from Britain in the early 2000s, starting out as teachers for different branches of an English conversation school. Both stumbled upon Japan’s craft beer scene on their own and, when their paths crossed later, their shared interests in beer, video games and music helped form a friendship.

BeerTengoku is far from the only source of information on craft beer here. The Japan Beer Times, a bilingual, quarterly print magazine and accompanying website, has been up and running since 2010, offering polished features and interviews and a wider look at the global craft beer scene.

Various other online guides, in English and Japanese, offer similar reviews, but none appear to be as active as BeerTengoku has become.

Bright and Robson have been rewarded for their efforts, at least in terms of their audience. When they sat down to set out objectives for 2017, reaching 100,000 website visitors was at the top of the list, a goal they hit toward the end of year.

“Two years ago it was 15,000,” Rob says.

And while they obviously enjoy managing the site, it takes up a lot of time and money. That’s why the pair recently launched a crowdfunding effort via Patreon, which allows users to create online membership plans as a way to raise revenue. On the Patreon page, BeerTengoku’s annual costs are laid out in detail along with a call for support. Those who pitch in can get access to special content and other perks.

But cash hasn’t exactly been pouring in. They set an initial goal of support reaching a total of $500 a month (monthly donations start as low as $1) but, as of early January, the page was clocking in just over $140 per month.

But rather than be discouraged, the pair are busy trying to come up with ways to make the site better, believing that the support will follow.

“Not many people want to pay us to drink and blog about it,” Robson says, “so I’d like to have events, bar takeovers and beer clubs. I’d like BeerTengoku to be a portal to Japanese craft beer and not just a website.”