Since I did a post on Japanese wine it’s only fair that I write a bit about Japanese beer. I find Japanese beer quite tasty and used to seek them out in the States. In Japan, even those produced by large companies like Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, etc have a number of variations (clear, malt, premium, black, extra dry, etc), which I’d not seen elsewhere. When you add to that mix all the imported beers and Japanese microbrews, the choices for beers in Japan are almost overwhelming. Japanese bars and restaurants that serve beer is equally varied and numerous as well, and trying to pick where to go can be mind boggling. But beer is served everywhere, from fine dining restaurants to small pubs, “standing bars,” outdoor festivals, Karaoke rooms, and roadside eateries. I’ve even seen beer sold at cafes along with coffee and on temple grounds. Of course you can buy them everywhere, too, whether it’s your corner convenient stores, department stores, or from vending machines.
Since my NY visitor J is a big beer fan and connoisseur, so I thought we’d hit up a few different places to give him a flavor of what you can get in Tokyo. I only had about a day with him so we limited our coverage area to the vicinity of Shibuya-Harajuku-Omotesando-Roppongi
After having a few beers watching a baseball game at Meiji Jingu Stadium, we walked over to Omotesando for dinner at Maisen (まい泉). A lot of people name Tonki in Meguro and Maisen as two of the most famous とんかつ tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlets) restaurants in Tokyo. I like Maisen’s kurobuta (black pig) tonkatsu but this time I actually ordered a set dinner consisting mostly of seafood. The house beer at Maisen was Suntory Premium Malts.
One of the first Japanese phrases I ever learned was “生ビール お願いします,” nama biiru onegaishimasu- “draft beer please.” It’s usually what my friends and I say as soon as we sit down at a restaurant/bar/wherever. Nama translates to “alive” or “raw” so in beer terms it means draft beer, usually served in an ice cold frosty mug.
I wanted to take J to a casual/cheap eatery nearby… 5 minutes on foot we were in front of Harajuku Gyoza Lou. After waiting for about 15 minutes in line we were happily drinking a couple cold Kirins and munching on 焼き餃子 yakigyoza (pan fried dumplings). What I love about this place is not just the cheap gyozas (6 for ¥290 ~ $3 USD), it’s far better than that. They have this automatic beer dispensing machine where all you have to do is to put a frosted mug on its little shelf and let it do its thing. Once the mug is placed, the machine lifts the mug up, tilts it about 45 degrees and the cold beer starts to slide down the inside of the glass from a faucet. The flow of the beer stops when it reaches about an inch from the rim. Then a second, different faucet turns on to dispense just the foam on top to create the most perfectly poured draft beer every single time. I’ve seen it a few times now at different places and even got to use it once myself. Forget having an espresso machine at home- I want one of these beer dispensing machines!
If you sit where this lady is sitting (photo below) at Harajuku Gyoza Lou, you can see the beer machine in action to your left (which is what I did the night I went there with J). On a side note, I think the pan fried dumplings are better than the boiled ones.
Spot the 生ビール (nama biiru) sign? It’s a pretty good bargain (in Japan, in this neighborhood) at ¥500.
Usually there is a long queue in front…
We weren’t done yet! It was a Sunday so a lot of places were closed, including a beer bar in Roppongi called “Cerveza” I used to frequent 15 years ago (I was beyond thrilled to see this place was still in business though). I wasn’t about to take J to Gaspanic so we headed over to Hobgoblin for a nightcap. I didn’t know at the time but apparently this Hobgoblin in Roppongi (with locations in Shibuya and Akasaka as well) is the largest pub in Japan. English is spoken by everyone there and you can also get free wifi. It’s not the most amazing spot but certainly convenient and easy for foreigners.
The next night (I let J wander around Akihabara, the electronic wonderland alone) J and I went to Jomon Roppongi for some kushiyaki (skewered and grilled meats/veggies). J wanted to go to Shinjuku to see Tokyo’s real nightlife but I was too tired to venture out. I picked a place near me… but when we got there I realized that I should have made a reservation- it was absolutely packed and bursting out to the sidewalk. Literally. They had people sit on small stools on the outside of the shop, using the open window and window sills as “tables.” We ended up sitting outside as well on a small bench with a miniature table set between us to hold our beers and food. It was a bit chilly but why not!? I’m going to say it again. Oh. So. Japanese.
I know J to be a microbrew fan so I did a bit of digging and came up with a little basement bar called Ant ‘N Bee. It’s one of those places where if you blink, you’ll walk right by. But it’s on the main drag in Roppongi, just a few meters down the street from the Roppongi Crossing. They’re open until 6AM so you can drink Japanese microbrews all night and wait for the trains to start running again in the morning. They have an all Japanese craft beer menu that changes daily.
The two of us tried six different beers. I didn’t know anything about any of the beers but ended up loving the three I picked. J agreed that his choices weren’t as good.
J’s first pick was delicious though- Onidennsetu “Oniden SILK Black” tasted like a nicer, richer version of Guinness (first photo below on the far left). My first round was an IPA from Minamishinnshu, which I quite liked. Four our second round we went to the section labeled “Strong” and picked a dark beer called “Sakura Bock” from Fujisakura (it was J’s and we both didn’t care for it much) and Daisen G Beer’s “Wheat Wine 2012.” The wheat wine (photo below on the far right) was high in alcohol content (9%) and definitely got me a bit tipsy.
My third and last beer at Ant ‘N Bee was called “Kinoni Pale Ale” from Onidensetu. I put three stars next to the menu so I must have liked it but honestly, I don’t really remember that one. J’s last order was from Isekadoya called “DEKOPON Ale.” Next to that we wrote “xxxxx” so I’m guessing we thought it wasn’t our favorite.
On my return visit to Ant ‘N Bee the other night the menu was almost completely different from a few weeks ago. It’s a tiny little hole in the ground (and the food didn’t look too great) but cool/interesting enough to stop by every now and then. That takes me to another random/weird bar near Omotesando called “Brimmer Beer Box” which, as the name suggests, is a box. It doesn’t look like much but it’s a fun place for a quick sip of craft beer from Kawasaki. Lastly, on Friday I had a nice cold “Yona Yona Ale” (an American style ale by Yo-Ho brewery) on tap at The Royal Scotsman Pub in Kagurazaka. Ah, the list goes on… but I’ll stop here today. Kanpai to you J for another fab hang in a foreign country!
Harajuku Gyoza Lou: 原宿餃子樓 6-2-4 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo (map)
A few other beer specialty bars on my list to visit:
Popeye: My friends tell me if you like microbrews you have to check this place out. It’s near where sumo tournaments take place in Ryogoku on the other side of the river. 2-18-7 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku, Tokyo 東京都墨田区両国 2-18-7 (map)
Craft Beer Market: The name says it all. Two locations in Tokyo… In Jinbocho [神保町], 2-11-15 Kanda-Jinbocho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; in Toranomon [虎ノ門], 1-23-3 Nishi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 東京都港区西新橋 1-23-3 S.A.グレイス 1F (map)