Planet Tokyo: The Zymurgosphere 東京星の醗圏

In my post about beer in Sapporo, I wrote: “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.” Boy, was I wrong.

I don’t know how I never noticed it before, but this time around Tokyo I was amazed at how little effort it took to find good beer. I suppose on my first two trips to Tokyo I wasn’t yet the beer geek I am now, and on my last trip I didn’t have much time to get out of the hotel. And of course, many of Tokyo’s best beer destinations do take a bit of research to find, but some are in the most high-traffic of areas, extremely easy to simply happen upon. For example, there is a fantastic bottle and glassware shop in the middle of Shinjuku Station, a small Belgian specialty bar in Tokyo Station, and one of the city’s better import selections latched onto Ikebukuro Station. But the best thing about Tokyo is that you don’t even really need to go to any special shops to find good beer. Lawsons, 7-Elevens, and am/pms around the city stock Yona Yona and Ginga Kōgen. Guinness is a standard at bars rather than a novelty. There is a local chain of English-style pubs boasting their own real ale, plus guest beers from Japanese microbreweries. Museum cafes serve Duvel and Chimay. Random restaurants serve a mysterious Witbier brewed by Sapporo. Even the Ramen Museum now offers regional craft brews to pair with their regional craft noodles.

Tokyoites are famous for demanding the very finest in food and drink, and this demand is now turning the eastern capital into a world-class brew city, nearly in the same league as other international beer boomtowns like San Diego, Chicago, Boston, and Bruges. There are dozens of viable craft beer destinations to choose from in Tokyo, but in the interest of time, money, and effort, I was able to whittle my agenda down to just two one-stop shops. Together, they fulfilled all my beer goals quite nicely, just as I’d hoped.

The first place I visited was Tanakaya, a bottle shop recommended by fellow Beer Advocates as well as my friend Sam, a Kantō-region veteran expat who has recently become quite the craft beer connoisseur himself. Actually, Sam is a connoisseur of most things, especially food, fashion, corn dogs, and bars that have two-story aquaria in them. Anyway, Tanakaya turned out to be totally, thoroughly awesome. The only comparable selection I’ve seen in Japan to date was at Mugishutei in Sapporo, and that was a bar, not a bottle shop. Especially exciting to me was their spectacular selection of American craft beer: AleSmith, Stone, Southampton, Dogfish Head, Avery, Great Divide, Full Sail, Bear Republic, North Coast, Sierra Nevada, and several others I can’t remember are all represented. Among them, many (most?) are what might be called extreme beer–barleywines, IPAs and double IPAs, imperial stouts, wood-aged ales, and the like. These aren’t necessarily my favorite styles, but it’s always thrilling to find them in Japan because they’re so rare here.

They also have a cooler full of Japanese craft beer that seemed small at first glance, but upon closer inspection, it was easily the most comprehensive selection of ji-beer I’ve ever seen: Baird, Minoh, Iwatekura, Kiuchi, Echigo, Hakusekikan, Swan Lake, Coedo, Yo-Ho, and the list goes on. Even Kyushu is represented! I picked up a Harvest Moon Yuzu Ale and a Sankt Gallen El Diablo Barleywine, mostly for the bizarre, opaque violet spire it comes in. I also got an adorable hand-painted ceramic Hitachino Nest cup.

And of course, Tanakaya’s European selection is fantastic as well. Their assortment of Belgians would be enough to keep any monk-loving yeast-freak happily drunk for months, and their German shelves are stocked with the crème de la crème of Pilseners, Bocks, Doppelbocks, Hefeweizens, Weizenbocks, and Altbiers. The UK section is somewhat small, but I can’t call it disappointing thanks to their lineup of barrel-aged J.W. Lees Harvest Ales, which had me seriously geeking out.

There was some debate in the Beer Advocate forums as to whether Tanakaya or Tobu is the best beer store in Tokyo. I went to Tobu, too, and having been to both stores, I can’t believe this debate ever took place. Tanakaya is absolutely, positively, hands-down, no-doubt-about-it the better beer store.

However, there was never any debate over the best beer bar in Tokyo: Popeye. The main draw to Popeye is their forty taps, two or three of which deliver gravity- or hand-pumped real ale. Most bars and restaurants in Japan serve only one draft beer, so the sheer quantity of taps is reason enough to pay Popeye a visit. But it gets better: all forty taps pour craft beer, mostly Japanese with a handful of American offerings thrown in for good measure. Not only that, but their range of styles is remarkably wide: mighty barleywines, lively IPAs, mellow wheat beers, balanced pale ales, crisp pilseners and rich stouts have all found a home at Popeye, not to mention the deliciously bold “IBA” (“India Black Ale”), a sort of porter-IPA blend brewed by the bar’s proprietors.

I must say that Popeye’s real ales were disappointing; the Yona Yona, so creamy when I had it on cask in Osaka, was weirdly watery and stridently carbonated, and the Swan Lake Amber Ale didn’t deliver the cask-conditioned nuance I was hoping for, either. But the real ale letdowns were easy to forgive and forget after a goblet of Hakusekikan’s brandy-esque Hurricane Barleywine and a pint of Baird’s hop-charged, nitro-tapped, smooth-as-velour Shimaguni Stout. Mmm!

But the good beer didn’t stop flowing after leaving Popeye. Back in Shinjuku Station, Sam led me to the very impressive bottle shop I mentioned above, where I picked up a bomber of Baird’s Morning Coffee Stout and a Celis White for Laura. Then we met up with Laura and capped off the evening at Hub, a rather average gaijin bar that serves a decidedly above-average house pale ale. Later in the week Sam and I ventured to Yokohama, and after stuffing ourselves with three bowls of mini-ramen, we washed it all down at the aptly (if unimaginatively) named Craft Beer Bar, a classy-but-not-too-classy tucked-away tavern with eight taps and two hand-pumps, all pouring Japanese craft beer. This is where I really got my real ale fix; the casked Iwatekura IPA and Minoh Amber Ale were both creamy, complex, full-bodied and robust–just as real ale ought to be. The Fujizakura Sakura Bock and the Hitachino Nest Weizen were lovely as well. Oh, and Craft Beer Bar also boasts a comprehensive, moderately-priced Scotch list; I closed my session with a nice glass of twelve-year-old Dalmore for only ¥700.

I had high beer hopes and ambitious beer goals in mind when I set off to Tokyo, and by the end of the week (actually, by Tuesday night) they were all completely fulfilled. Plus, I still have plenty of bounty from Tanakaya stashed away at home, so I should be set for a while. Good thing, too; over the course of the week I burned through about three months’ beer budget. I’ve always thought it would be really awesome to live in Tokyo, but then again, it’s probably better that I don’t. If I did, I’d be perpetually drunk and destitute.

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One thought on “Planet Tokyo: The Zymurgosphere 東京星の醗圏

  1. mike! says:

    your blog is so cute! even if sam looks completely different and skinnier. i wish i could visit you, but i keep getting my foot stuck right when i’m boarding the plane. thanks a lot Nike!

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