But it isn’t just Sapporo Beer.
I am a beer geek. I’ve discussed this is previous posts, occasionally at length. When I travel, I tend to plan my itineraries around trips to breweries and bottle shops, meticulously plotting out marathon bar crawls just to find that Rodenbach on tap, that Yona Yona on cask, or any number of malt-based thrills I seek.
In Japan, such thrills are generally few and far between. Even in huge, international cities like Tokyo and Osaka, you have to go a bit out of your way to get the good stuff when it comes to beer. But in Sapporo, it almost seems like the good beer finds you.
Take our first good beer experience in Sapporo, for example: Leibspeise, a small tasting bar and restaurant operated by the nearby Otaru Brewery, managed by two real-life Germans! Leibspeise is almost impossible to miss thanks to its convenient location on the first and second floors of the TV Tower, perhaps Sapporo’s most popular and certainly its most visible landmark. Leibspeise offers four beers: a fresh, crisp Pilsener; a fruity, smooth, and lightly spicy Hefeweizen; a robust and surprisingly hoppy dark lager; and its seasonal special. Currently, this is a delightful experiment in retrobrewing called “Vier Korn Bier” フィーアコーンビア, a beer based on a 520-year-old German recipe that predates the infamous Reinheitsgebot. Brewed from barley, wheat, rye, and spelt (hence the name, “four grain beer,”) the amber-colored ale is without a doubt one of the most interesting Japanese beers I’ve ever tasted: smoky, spicy, and earthy from the rye, with a sweet, corny je ne sais quoi from the spelt. And all this was only a ten-minute walk from our hotel. Oh, and did I mention the ridiculously awesome growler of Champagner Weizen I bought there?
After a quick trip back to the hotel to grab our jackets (the weather in Sapporo is lovely, isn’t it?) and a tasty crab dinner, we proceeded to our second beer destination: the Mugishu-tei 麦酒亭. Run by Phred, a big, bearded bear of a Californian who makes my beer geekery look like nothing more than juvenile posturing, Mugishu-tei offers beers I never, ever thought I’d see in Japan. Ever. Phred imports/smuggles the beers here personally, and he boasts some extremely delicious exclusive selections such as AleSmith’s Old Numbskull, Anchor’s Our Special Ale, Urthel Hop-It, Rogue Juniper Pale Ale, and many, many more. I had a bomber of Bear Republic’s Big Bear Black Stout, a glass of Sierra Nevada IPA, some Houblon Chouffe, (both on tap!), a bottle of Shakespeare Stout, and ended with a bomber of Stone Ruination. Oh, I got so blissfully drunk!
The next day, a skull-crushing harpy of a hangover descended upon me and angrily screamed in my ears, “This’ll learn you to make horrendously embarrassing declarations to your girlfriend that you don’t even really mean!” But after one of the most spectacular brunches I’ve ever had, a trip to a cat and dog petting zoo and a row around a pond, I was ready to proceed with our next big beer plan: go to the Sapporo Beer Garten and enjoy two hours of all-you-can eat, all-you-can-drink Hokkaido-style hedonism.
The Sapporo Beer Garten サッポロビール園 is a complex of buildings, some of them conspicuously old and some of them conspicuously new by contrast, established to showcase – you guessed it – Sapporo Beer. Most of the buildings are dedicated exclusively to drinking Sapporo Beer and eating food to go with it (I’ll get to that in a bit); if memory serves, the only two exceptions are a souvenir shop and a museum. The museum is small, but definitely worth a visit thanks to its charming and often fascinating displays. In fact, when I first visited the museum two years ago, I thought the way the museum posited brewing as a sort of metaphor for civilization was so interesting, it prompted me to write my senior thesis on Japanese food museums.
But getting back to the topic at hand: beer. Drinking beer, that is. Sapporo Beer is not my favorite, even among the big four Japanese macrobreweries, but still I had no trouble putting away several pints of fresh, cold, snappy Sapporo Classic and robust Sapporo Black in between mouthfuls of Genghis Khan, a highly celebrated Sapporo specialty that I’ll discuss in my next post.
After another restful, drunken sleep on firm New Otani mattresses, we hopped aboard a JR express train to the nearby city of Otaru, home to numerous glass-blowing studios, a very picturesque and accordingly tourist-saturated canal, and of course, the aforementioned Otaru Brewery. We visited the Otaru Sōko 小樽倉庫 No. 1, which felt like a German beer hall recreated by Disneyland imagineers, all fake ivy and stained glass and gnarled wood and high prices. But the beer was fresh and flavorful and even better than it had been at the Leibspeise – which we revisited the next day, after an abortive excursion to the kappa-ridden ghost town of Jōzankei.
And then there was the airport. The sprawling, beer-filled New Chitose Airport. Several of the souvenir shops virtually overflowed with locally-brewed craft beer, each bottle of ale and every can of lager taunting me, offering glimpses of the thriving Hokkaido beer culture of which I had taken only the smallest sips! So I loaded up a basket with some of the more tempting options (including at least one novelty item), and set off from the land of refreshing breezes and local beer back to the land of taxing humidity and local shochu, with a heavy heart and even heavier shopping bags.
Thus ends the beery portion of my Sapporo travelogue. Stay tuned for my next entry: Sapporo is food!