Food & Drink | KYOTO RESTAURANTS

Kyoto Beer Lab: Creative beers with local charm

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

About halfway through interviewing Tom Ainsworth, co-owner of Kyoto Beer Lab, an unpretentious craft beer pub that looks out over the Takase River canal, one of its regulars dropped by.

In fact she forced herself in — the bar was still closed. Ainsworth, 32, didn’t mind in the least: He just scooped her up and tickled the soft part under her ears. Fuji-chan — devoted canine regular — loved every moment of it, almost as much as the pieces of fried bacon from Hiro, a renowned victualers and yakiniku meat restaurant. (It is, without doubt, some of the best bacon you’ll get in Kyoto.)

It’s a pity Fuji-chan can’t drink, because Ainsworth and the team at Kyoto Beer Lab have been brewing up a great range of beers since 2018.

Kyoto Beer Lab’s origin story is one part music and one part beer which, taken together, generally make for a solid pairing. In 2014, Ainsworth, who hails from Sydney, Australia, had been living and working in Shiga Prefecture, drumming with a few different local punk and metal bands. During one gig, a friend introduced Ainsworth to Hidekazu Muragishi, an encounter that would eventually lead to Kyoto Beer Lab.

Muragishi, also from Shiga, already had a license to brew beer. At the time, he was working on a project to help promote and revitalize Wazuka, a picturesque tea growing region in southern Kyoto, embarking on a mission to develop a tea beer. His experimentation would eventually lead to the Chabeer lineup, Kyoto Beer Lab’s signature range of tea-infused beers.

Meanwhile, briefly back in Sydney before making the jump to permanently move to Japan, Ainsworth picked up experience in the craft beer industry, starting out, as many novices do, with a home brewing kit. As to what those first brews tasted like, Ainsworth can’t remember: “None of (the recipes) have lasted to this day, though, so they couldn’t have been that good,” he says.

Ainsworth also received more formal training at The Grifter Brewing Company in Sydney, learning to operate professional machinery and getting up close with tanks and the fermentation process.

“I have always worked with my hands, I don’t like working on computers,” Ainsworth says, adding that he would happily brew beer all day long — or at least a good part of it. He points to the back of the bar, where one of the brewers is standing over a tank holding a huge ladle. “There’s no pressure on anyone here as long as you do your job.”

Increasingly, Ainsworth’s job takes him into the office, where he manages a lot more of the backend operations. But at least the office is within shouting distance of the brewing room.

Currently there’s eight taps at Kyoto Beer Lab and, as you would expect of a brewpub, the lineup, which runs from the smooth Roasted Tea Stout to the fruity and sour Sucker Punch, frequently changes. When it comes to figuring out what should go on tap, Ainsworth says it comes down to three factors: “What I want to drink, what season it is and what other staff members want to drink.”

The food menu is concise, but well thought out and delicious, the kind of dishes that would pair well with any beer. Besides the aforementioned bacon, highlights include a sublime take on doteni, a regional Nagoya dish of beef tendons simmered in red miso and mirin rice wine.

Unsurprisingly, music is also key to the identity of Kyoto Beer Lab. Once a month it hosts an all-day DJ event, kicking off midafternoon and running into the evening. But the best thing about Kyoto Beer Lab — besides the beer, food and music — is that it’s a pub that fits seamlessly into the neighborhood. Just ask Fujii-chan whenever she drops by.

Juzenjicho 201-3, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto 600-8137; 075-352-6666; kyotobeerlab.jp; open weekdays 3-11 p.m., weekends and holidays 1-11 p.m.; beer from ¥700, food from ¥300; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; Japanese and English spoken

Until further notice, this will be the final installment in the Kyoto Restaurants column.

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