Finding home comforts in Japan can sometimes be a challenge. That specific type of bread you thought was everywhere is nowhere to be found, that cheese costs ￥1,000 for a 50g piece, or that beer tastes bland and non-descript.
To combat your cravings for things from home, you can head to the nearest import shop and cross your fingers, or these days, head to Amazon if you can stomach the shipping costs.
But there is one other way – you could make it yourself. And that’s exactly was Garth Roberts ended up doing after his winding journey to owning his own microbrewery in Japan’s bustling capital city.
The winding road to Japan
Garth started off life in the often-romanticized city of Gloucester, about 150km west of the UK’s own capital city, London. It seems that big city life is something that always called out to him though, as it wasn’t long before he made his way to central London.
But Garth’s subsequent journey to Japan wasn’t quite as streamlined. In fact, it wasn’t really intended as a destination at all.
Garth made his way to Asia starting with Thailand and Indonesia. Tokyo was only meant to be a stop-off point on his way home to the UK, but he dropped by to see a friend. After getting used to the cheaper lifestyles elsewhere, Tokyo promptly drained his bank account in just three days. He needed money, quick. So what else was a broke Brit to do, other than to get a job teaching English.
Luck in the bubble era
His financial luck took a turn for the better with the bubble era; “Everything I touched turned to gold!” And Garth made himself a pretty penny working as a teacher, narrator, model, advisor, and eventually a stock photographer. Things were going well, so there was no reason to leave Japan by that point. With that money behind him, he helped set up and invest in Poco Loco, a Tex-Mex bar and restaurant in Bali, Indonesia. He and his main business partner worked hard to create the establishment, with the business partner-cum-chef doing thorough research for the menu in Mexico and Texas before opening. But eventually they sold the place to their Australian partners.
Although Garth went to help with the setup of the restaurant, most of this was going on while he was still in Japan. And as the saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun, so before he knew it, it was 1998 and he had his own British style pub in Tokyo, the Meguro Tavern.
The Meguro Tavern
The Meguro Tavern was a product of Garth and three friends getting tired of “squatting on little stools drinking Japanese beer from little glasses”. The novelty of the izakaya had somewhat worn off in their years in Japan, so they fulfilled every Englishman’s dream and opened a pub. It was by no means a cheap investment, but Garth’s experience in the food industry gave him a good foothold to get going.
Shortly after opening, Garth moved to Australia, but after finding out there were discrepancies in cost and profit, the three founding members began to take it in turns managing the pub themselves. After two years of this, Garth moved back to Japan and took full ownership of the pub himself.
Building a microbrewery
It was there that the brewery, Ikari Jyouzou, came onto the scene. With zero Japanese reading and writing ability, and only passable spoken Japanese, Garth applied for a license to brew thinking there was no way it would ever be accepted. But it wasn’t the acceptance that was the issue – it was the application itself…
“The application turned out to be 300 pages long, without a word of English. I paid someone to translate the details while I did the math. The whole process took a year!”
The roadblocks didn’t stop there. The next issue was finding a landlord willing to let Garth dig up a hole in the floor to brew his beer. It took countless weeks of searching and rejections for Garth to finally find the perfect spot of land where he and his in-laws built the small microbrewery.
He finally got the brewery up and running, and began life as a brewer, making beer for his own Tokyo pub. But by this point, you may be wondering what it’s like brewing your own beer on a regular basis.
On the day of our interview, Garth told me what his day had been like. After his morning job as a driver at a local elderly care center, he made his way back to the brewery to rinse the sterilized kegs. He then filled them with new beer from the fermenter for them to go through a secondary fermentation for a few weeks. He then drove across town to deliver a different batch of ready-to-drink kegs to Nishi-Ogikubo. He finished the day with a few hours at the tap room.
He currently makes around eight types of British-style craft beer, “each unique and more balanced than the other over-hopped styles.” From his light and citrusy Cascade IPA, to his malty and dark Ikari Noir porter, Garth’s motto is “Life is too short to drink bad ale”, so you know you’re in for a treat with whatever you try.
These days, the Meguro Tavern is no longer in business, and Garth only opens his tap room for a few hours (6 – 8pm) on a casual basis to get to know the locals. He generally avoids opening later than that to spare himself of the countless repeated life stories of the heavier drinkers; “Closing early allows me to keep my sanity!”
But believe it or not, this busy schedule is that of a retired man. Garth spends time with his family, and time with his microbrewery, but also enjoys supplementing his income by teaching the ropes to young brewers-to-be. Right now he takes on 2-3 interns a year.
Garth maintains that there is still plenty of room in the fast-growing market of craft brewing, but has some words of advice: “Just ensure you have a confirmed (and proven) ready market for your stuff before you start, as this is a requirement of the license. Population dynamics are on your side, but they can be a finicky lot!”
If you’re thinking of breaking into the brewery business yourself, Garth is always happy to share his brewing wisdom, so stop by for a beer and a chat, and see what you could be getting yourself into.