Keith Martinez and Jerrel Brantley, co-founders of the boutique beer company Maison Rococo, fell in love with Japan during a trip to Tokyo in 2015. Enchanted by the country’s culture of hospitality and cuisine, the two friends, who had met at the University of Chicago, sensed an opportunity.
“Sometimes when you’re an outsider it’s easier to notice things about society,” Martinez says. “We noticed people were drinking a lot of beer — not just men, but women also.”
They began researching the Japanese drinks market. Eventually, they hit upon a problem that they believed they could solve: Despite the number of craft brewers in Japan, beer rarely showed up on menus at fine-dining restaurants.
“At the high end, cuisine is an asset. Japanese food is known all over the world, and products made in Japan are synonymous with luxury. Yet there was no luxury beer being made in Japan, and no one could explain why that was the case,” Martinez says.
Enticed by the appeal of entrepreneurship, Brantley left his job at beverage giant Anheuser-Busch and moved to Japan in 2017. Martinez, who had been working as a banker for Credit Suisse, followed suit a year later. The duo enlisted the help of brand management specialist Yohay Wakabayashi, a Tokyo native who had spent more than a decade in the United States.
According to Wakabayashi, he “always wanted to have (his) own brand,” so when Brantley and Martinez approached him with the proposition of launching a beer designed to pair with haute-cuisine, he jumped at the chance.
“It was sort of a gut feeling. While some people would think it’s a weakness (to start) a business with two non-Japanese partners in Japan, I saw it as a strength. They can think outside of the box,” Wakabayashi says.
From the onset, they decided to focus exclusively on selling their beer to top-tier restaurants, rather than entering the retail market. The idea, Brantley explains, was to position the product as “an accompaniment for special moments, something you could only get at special places.”
Since none of the Maison Rococo team had professional beer-making experience, they worked with a beer consultant and organized blind tastings to understand consumer tastes, aggregating the data to identify patterns. Before launching, they shared the most popular prototypes with chefs and sommeliers and made tweaks based on feedback, tamping down bitterness and body to create a more versatile product.
“We didn’t want to make something that we thought was tasty to us, we wanted to make something that prioritized the needs of the consumers in Japan,” Martinez explains.
The final result is Rococo Tokyo White, a light and fresh hefeweizen-style wheat beer with soft acidity and barely discernible bitterness. The beer, which launched in March 2018, is made with pure groundwater from Mount Fuji at a brewing facility in Shizuoka Prefecture; the company describes it as “Japan’s first luxury beer.”
Initially, the trio started out by cold-calling chefs and owners of Michelin-starred restaurants, delivering samples of the beer by bike.
They began with only one partner — kaiseki (traditional multicourse) restaurant Ozaki in Tokyo’s Azabu Juban neighborhood — but after developing close relationships with restaurants such as Nishiazabu Taku, word spread quickly among the chef community. Rococo Tokyo White is now served at restaurants such as Tokyo’s Takiya and Florilege, and Hajime and La Cime in Osaka. Martinez says they’ve also received interest from importers in France.
I recently sampled Rococo Tokyo White at Tokyo’s Sazenka, a two-Michelin-starred restaurant serving ultrarefined Chinese cuisine. The beer’s citrus notes complement chicken wings sauteed with dried chili peppers, while its soft texture and mild nutty flavor underscore the silkiness of “risotto” made with Shanghai hairy crab and topped with white truffles.
“We’re fighting the perception of beer as a drink for middle-aged salarymen,” Wakabayashi says.