Monday, May 13, 2013

Tokyo Craft Beer Bars

After two months travelling in the beer-wasteland known as southeast Asia, it was refreshing to hit Japan for a few days, where even the ubiquitous big-name rice lagers are a marked improvement.

After a bread-and-water diet, even a cheap cheeseburger is oh-so-satisfying

But Tokyo caters to everyone's interests, no matter how odd or unique, so there was no need to stick with the familiar.  With a little help from my friend the internet, I was able to visit a few very good craft beer bars.

Juice box sake! Stock up for your kids' lunches...

The Watering Hole (Shinjuku/Yoyogi)

Hello, friendly neighbourhood craft beer bar

Being craft beer keeners, Mrs. Hoplog and I arrived at at the Watering Hole at the 3:00pm opening time.  A few people drifted in and out, but it was certainly not crowded in the afternoon and early evening.

We decided to stick to Japanese beer exclusively, though many international taps were available, focusing largely on American craft brewers such as Rogue, Stone, Ballast Point, etc.  In fact, most of the craft beer bars we visited in Tokyo featured similar lists of American beer - likely the work of the same beer importer.

The walls were filled with American craft beer swag and signs.  Our server (at the end of the bar) was friendly and helpful, and spoke a few words of English (not guaranteed in non-touristed areas of Japan).  She and her fellow employees had visited the most recent GABF (Great American Beer Festival), combining it with a beer-themed road trip. The highlights were captured in two charming photo albums on the bar.

Brimmer Porter with smoked pork and grainy mustard

And wow, the beer was incredible, as were the small plates of food.  If more Japanese craft brewers get traction and start exporting more widely, they will be warmly welcomed in any locale.  They seem to have the same skill making beer that other Japanese companies have making cars, electronics and optics!  If I had to sum up Japanese craft beer in a word, it would be "balance."  You never get punched in the face by a Japanese beer - you simply enter a zen state that allows you to meditate on how pleasing and harmonious the beverage is.

We were big fans of the made-to-order sweet potato chips - simple, but delectable.

There's a single-person smoking cubicle covered by a curtain.  I'm not sure if it was a joke or legitimate.  (Japanese izakayas (food pubs) are hot-boxed by smoking salarymen in the evenings, but you can't smoke while walking down the street - you have to find a designated smoking area in order to smoke outdoors.  Smokers take note.)

Craft beer suits Mrs. Hoplog very well

Shelf features the classics by Daniels, Mosher, etc.

Beers sampled (all highly recommended):
Beer Buddy (Shizuoka): Chocolate Dark IPA, 6%
Brimmer Brewing (Kanagawa): Porter, 5.5%
Baird Brewing (Shizuoka): Suruga Bay Imperial IPA, 7.8%

Goodbeer Faucets (Shibuya)

A few minutes of walking from Sibuya Crossing brings you to the second-floor Goodbeer Faucets.  Take note: this should be your first stop on any craft beer tour of Tokyo.

Love Hotel Hill

Handily, Goodbeer Faucets is adjacent to Love Hotel Hill, featuring endless (often themed) hotels rentable overnight or by the hour.  You know, for when you need a place to crash after imbibing too much, or in case all that sexy craft beer has put you in the mood for a little - ahem - dessert.  (These aren't considered seedy like they would be in North America - if you have a tiny non-soundproofed apartment, or you share one with your parents, sometimes you just need some off-site privacy with your favourite person.)

Most seats provide pleasing low-level views of the endless numbers pedestrian shoppers.

Goodbeer is very proud of its draught system, featuring automated cleaning technology that purportedly keeps the beer sparkling fresh - which it was.

No half-empty bottles of bleach adjacent to this tap tower - the cleaning is all high-tech.

Both international and Japanese craft beers were well-represented.  Again, we stuck to the Japanese stuff.

Our server was fantastic, and beyond the great beer was the reason this place was our favourite in Tokyo.  Her English was quite good (she lived in Los Angeles for two years), she put in a great effort recommending beers that matched our preferences, and was consistently warm and friendly.

She even brought us copies of the "Japan Beer" periodical, available at most craft beer bars we visited.  It's essentially Japan's version of the Northwest Brewing News; be sure to pick up a copy when you're in Japan.

Beers sampled (all highly recommended):
Nide Beer (house beer brewed by Baird of Shizuoka): GBF Smoke Pump Stout (Real Ale), 6% (cask)
Nide Beer (house beer brewed by Baird of Shizuoka): Nide Cream Ale, 5.5%
Noboribetsu Jibeer Onidensetsu (Hokkaido): American Barley Wheat, 5.5%
Brimmer Brewing (Kanagawa): 1 Year Anniversary Ale, 5.8%

Devil Craft (Kanda)

When you think of Japanese cuisine, authentic Chicago-style deep dish pizza is probably not the first thing that leaps to mind.  But then again craft beer isn't the first beverage one thinks of either.  Happily, you can find both at Devil Craft.

Devil Craft inhabits several very cozy levels, each measuring only about 300 square feet (including stairs).  It's a popular place, so if you don't make a reservation you'll probably spend the first part of your evening at the stairwell table like we did.

Stools over kegs on the landing - and enough stair traffic that you  never feel lonely

Our friendly bartender was from Austin, Texas, and several of the beers were American as well. We again stuck to the many Japanese offerings and weren't disappointed.

The pizza was fantastic - fresh and flavourful.  I assume it was authentic, though I haven't tried pizza in Chicago yet.

The cask of Iwatekura Oyster Stout was particularly memorable - the most salty/mineral-y (and yes, oyster-y) example I've yet tasted.

For those not fond of oceanic influences in their beer, there were plenty of other brilliant options.

Devil Craft was a cool little island of pizza and craft beer; a cozy and tasty place to spend an evening.

Beers sampled (all highly recommended):
Aquila Brewery (Akita City): Akita Bijin no Beer, 5.0% (Helles brewed with Cascade)
SOC Brewing (Ebetsu City, Hokkaido): North Island Weizen, 5.0%
Iwatekura Brewery (Ichinoseki City): Iwatekura Oyster Stout, 7.0% (cask)

Craft Beer Market (Toranomon)

No, not the Canadian "Craft Beer Market" that is coming to Vancouver later this year.  An unrelated Tokyo pub (actually two of them now) that serves good craft beer at the lowest prices in Tokyo, along with exceptional food.

At lunchtime, the windows fold back and young business people flood into the small, airy space.

Arriving at 12:30 was an effective strategy, as many of the tables had begun to empty and seats opened up. There was still plenty of time to enjoy the food and drink before the 2:00pm afternoon closing time.

The food was exceptional.  Reasonably priced, yet very well-executed.  A highly recommended lunch stop.

Each meal starts with a crisp salad

I had the Asian-influenced curry

Mrs. Hoplog had a vegetarian pasta - one of the best I can recall tasting

After narrowly avoiding a local-hopped "India Snow Saison" that was not very passable, the beer was once again spot-on.  We would have stayed longer but for the mid-afternoon closing.

A sublime Japanese-made witbier

Baskets under your stools for keeping your handbag/briefcase clean and close by

Beers sampled (all highly recommended except for *):
Baeren (Iwate): Schwarz, 5.5%
Shigakogen Brewery (Nagano): IPA, 6.0%
*Johana (Toyama): India Snow Saison, 6.5% (made with local hops) (just a taster)
Coedo (Saitama): Shiro, 5.0%  (Belgian Wit)

Asahi Sky Room (Asakusa)

Next to one of Tokyo's many canals, adjacent to the Flamme d'Or sculpture (known locally as the "Golden Turd") and within strolling distance of the new Tokyo Skytree tower is the headquarters of Asahi, possibly Japan's best-known megabrewer.

The building that looks like a tall glass of golden beer with a rocky white head?  Asahi headquarters.  How can you not like it?

Upon taking the elevator to the top of the building (22nd floor, in the "beer head"), you can purchase a reasonably-priced Asahi beer and relax in a lounge with one of the best-value panoramas in Tokyo.

This view is Mrs. Hoplog-approved

The view over my pint

I was doubly happy because in addition to the view, the lounge had Asahi Black on tap.  My experience with Japanese megabrewer schwarzbiers/dunkels had been limited to a couple of very stale bottles in Canada.  But the fresh on-tap example did not disappoint - a refreshing, clean pint (despite being served in a frozen mug like all Japanese megabrews).  But I'd give the bottled "Dry Black" a miss.

Beers sampled:
Asahi: Black (dunkel-ish) (draught) [highly recommended]
Asahi: Dry Black (schwarzbier/dunkel-ish) (bottle) [not recommended]

Popeye (Ryogoku)

Walking several minutes south from the Asahi Sky Room, you pass the Ryogoku Kokugikan, the main Tokyo sumo wrestling stadium.

Sumo is interesting and all, but just past the Kokugikan is what one day might be a similarly historic place: Popeye, Tokyo's original craft beer bar.

Popeye started off as a fairly traditional izakaya until the owner, Tatsuo Aoki, became interested in craft beer.  Things started to take off when he began introducing Belgian and Japanese craft beer to the tap list in the mid-1990s.  There are now 40 taps and a couple of cask engines, and the seats are nearly full every night.

The pub retains its old-school charm with a busy collection of knick-knacks, bowtie-wearing waitstaff, and the signature yelled greetings, goodbyes and call-and-answer ordering of a traditional Japanese izakaya.

The owner Tatsuo is in attendance most nights, and is something of a legend in Japanese beer circles.

Photo of owner Tatsuo  and Michael Jackson

Clearly I needed my own photo with Tatsuo, seen here in his signature formal wear

The beer?  Excellent, as expected.  We again kept to Japanese craft beers, and were not disappointed in the slightest.

50 ml of wonderfully complex barleywine

Happy hour at Popeye does not involve discounts on beer, but it does provide a free plate of food with each glass of beer served, regardless of size (excluding the more "special" beers).  And it's proper, meal-worthy food!  Great value.

Free happy hour sausage plate

Free happy hour fresh ham salad plate

Popeye received a Ratebeer Best Beer Bars In The World Gold Medal in 2010 and 2011.  Other than an overcharging problem with our bill that was eventually corrected with the help of a friendly bilingual customer, our experience was good, cozy fun.

Beers sampled (all highly recommended):
Yo-ho Brewing (Karuizawa, Nagano): Tokyo Porter (cask)
Hinomaru Ale (Jumonji-Cho, Akita): Best Bitter, 4+% (cask) [amazing pair with the fried chicken]
Shigakougen Beer (Yamanouchi, Nagano): IPA
Baird Brewing, Divine Vamp Series (Shizuoka): Black Bitter, 4.5%
Baird Brewing, Divine Vamp Series (Shizuoka): III ("India Black Ale")
Nasu Kogen (Takakukoh, Nasu): Nine-Tailed Fox Barleywine, 12%

The Verdict

Go to Tokyo.  Drink Japanese craft beer.  Delight in its deliciousness and revel in the fact you were smart enough to visit.

Some Tokyo craft beer guides to get you started:

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