Tomas Rehak spent 20 years as part of the well – oiled machine of the Prague orchestra. Now he and his partner Fumika are making a name for themselves as Ebina Beer.
Tomas Rehak is a man who respects hard work. He tells us of the trouble he had finding someone reliable to construct his brewery in Ebina, Kanagawa. He had contracted someone, but after weeks there had been no progress. Fed up with the timewasting attitude of the man, Rehak fired him and spent two solid weeks wiring up the system himself.
“It wasn’t so difficult”, he recalls. “I also painted the bar myself too.”
He is also a patient, humble man, and although he does not downplay his own achievements, he also avoids criticising others for their faults. The most we got out of him when we interviewed him one afternoon in November 2017, was that an unnamed brewery may have once made a beer that was not up to scratch. And, while Rehak’s wife and business partner Fumika Hirai was eager to hear about our experiences with the worst Japanese craft beer has to offer (you know, the blue and garlic end of the spectrum), Rehak himself was noticeably reticent on the recording. He pragmatically comments that it’s good to try the bad beers, however, so you know what not to make.
Don’t get us wrong, though – Rehak is not averse to experimenting in his own recipes. A drinker visiting their cosy brewpub might be shocked that a Czech brewer – you know, the land of lagers and pilsners – isn’t offering such traditional fare. Although there is always a pilsner on tap, fruit beers, coffee lagers and a terrifyingly spicy chili ale called Angry Tom are also all frequent residents on the tap list. Rehak doesn’t even mind the divisive beer du jour, that big old bucket of juice, the New England IPA.
But making an experimental beer just as a gimmick to attract customers is where he draws the line. He says it’s important to think about which tastes match instead of just throwing any old ingredient.
He learned this when sourcing local produce for a beer. He had been given some “kabosu”, a small citrus fruit that can be translated as “stinking bitter orange”. You may be surprised to discover that, try as he might, he couldn’t find a recipe that tasted good with the hard, seed-filled fruit. He was forced to abandon the whole project.
(Those wanting to try a kabosu beer are directed towards Sagami Beer’s effort, though be warned: Rob didn’t take to kindly to it)
Indeed, when we went in for the interview, Rehak told us he had recently been trying to infuse rosemary into his beers, with varying degrees of success. He must have struck a balance, because I spied “rosemary” written on a list of ingredients in the brewery room next to the bar area while we were taking a look around.
So, is there anything he won’t brew? Although he could never brew every beer he wanted to, he tells us he doesn’t feel pressure as a Czech brewer of beer to brew only Czech beers (as you can clearly see in the taplist). The one sticking point between Rehak and Hirai came up when Hirai pointed out that there wasn’t an IPA on the taplist, to which Rehak grimaced. He’d been resisting making one, feeling that he didn’t need to pander to his drinkers to make a cash – in beer. Hirai thought it would be good for business.
(The following month the IPA did show up on the taplist after all – as my dad always says, “Happy wife, happy life”)
Let’s go back. Rehak spent twenty years as part of orchestras in the Czech Republic, culminating with the post of Chief Conductor at the Dvorak Symphony Orchestra in 2002. Aside from conducting and playing the tuba to Dvorak pieces, his orchestra also performed the music for Final Fantasy games and even a Star Wars film. Rehak is extremely proud of this (who wouldn’t be?!), and belies his characteristic humble nature by producing the photograph of himself with George Lucas in a matter of seconds!
He reached a fork in his life path when he was 40 years old. After half of his life in the orchestra, he felt like he had come upon the last point in his life where he could make a big change.
“If I had two lives I would continue in the orchestra, but now it’s time for a change. If you miss your chance it doesn’t come back”
He had dabbled in homebrew at home (where else?), but decided to start the brewery in Hirai’s native Japan. Doing business in the Czech Republic involves a lot of bureaucracy.
So Rehak, Hirai and their two children relocated to Ebina, and after setting themselves up in November 2016, they started brewing in earnest. While Hirai manages the financial side (she was an accountant in Prague when she and Rehak met), and there are a handful of staff members working in the pub, Rehak handles the entire brewing process himself. Training a second brewer from scratch would take a year, he says. It would be easier if there were more homebrewers, but this is Japan. Maybe one day the law will change, but until then Rehak’s got his hopes pinned on his son taking over the business.
Rehak himself got his experience working on a thousand-litre system at Nihonkai Club under the tutelage of Jiri Kotynek while he was waiting for his brewing license application to be processed. He decided on a thousand litre system as well, as he wanted room to expand the brewery in the future.
While at Nihonkai Club, Rehak sampled a lot of different style of beers, trying to develop his own philosophy of brewing.
“I tried lots of ji-beers, and everyone was making IPAs, pale ales and weizens. There were no surprises. Why should I do the same? Very few places were making a really good pilsner.”
And so Rehak found both his niche and his philosophy. He would focus on lagers and pilsners, while experimenting with different adjuncts to create unique brews.
He keeps all his beers at 5% ABV – high alcohol kills the taste, he says. He would consider a lower ABV beer for summer, though.
Ebina Lager is Ebina Beer’s flagship drink. It’s a crisp-tasting, fruity, hoppy lager. There’s also a grapefruit ale, which was on tap when we went. Grapefruit ales are one of my favourite fruit ales. Rehak built himself up to this one in his characteristic experimental style, first with a lemon lager, then making an orange beer, and finally the grapefruit.
It’s this spirit of experimentation which makes Ebina Beer a great brewery to watch. Follow their social media accounts and when you see a beer you like, get over there quickly to try it. Who knows when you’ll see it again!
So what are the future plans for Ebina Beer? Rehak estimates that in three years they’ll be financially stable, with all their debts paid off. After that, he wants to expand.
“Four fermenters isn’t enough. I would like at least eight or more.”
Of course, this would require a move to a larger, dedicated premises, leaving the current location to be fully run as a restaurant instead of half-brewery, half-taproom. They’d serve Czech food as well, such as savoury pancakes called bramboracky, potato salad called bramborový salát, and kvašáky pickles.
For the time being, though, you can find Ebina Beer on tap at Goodbeer Faucets, Vector Beer, Himalaya and of course in their own brewpub in Ebina. They’re a fixture at many beer festivals as well. You’ve got no excuse not to try them. Go, drink, and you’ll see how Rehak and Ebina Beer are doing lagers and pilsners right – by respecting the original recipes, but also using them as a canvas to create so much more.
And if you like what you drink, and want to help Tomas expand, head over to their crowdfunding page at Campfire. They are looking for funds to buy a car, more barrels, a bottling machine, custom glasses and a proper stall for their festival appearances. In return, you can get some beer and merchandise, but more importantly, you’ll be putting your money where your mouth is!