Tokyo has been one of the world’s best food cities for a long time, being a food wonderland of fresh fish, rich pork broth ramen, and the most tender steaks you’ll ever slice a knife through. When Japanese beer is mentioned, the first thought that pops up is Asahi or Sapporo, found at almost every sushi restaurant in America.
In fact, Sapporo has become so synonymous in the American landscape that all Sapporo consumed in the US now is brewed and shipped from Wisconsin. Of course, the familiarity of these brands is warranted, as they are the largest beer companies to ever come out of Japan. Just like many things in food and beverage, the Japanese are masters at taking cues from other cultures and perfecting it. Just look at the impact that Japan has had on whiskey. Now, the beer landscape in Japan has taken on a young generation of craft beer that rivals the scene in Portland, Seattle, or Denver, some of the beer capitals of America.
On one of my first trips to Tokyo years back, I was in a tiny record store in the Harajuku neighborhood, called Big Love Records, sifting through Japanese exclusive vinyl’s while the shop owner had The XX’s new record spinning on the shop speakers. In the corner of the 300 square feet store was a counter with two stools, a short stack of beer glasses, and two inconspicuously labeled taps. On one of these taps was written “Big Love Lager”, the stores very own exclusive brew. In many other major cities, this sort of concept could be blown up with A-frame boards on the sidewalk proclaiming, “Record Shop Bar!!!” to sell customers. But the record shop remains understated on a hard-to-find, quiet street and the shop owner modest. Being in a city of 13 million people, this was just another hidden gem in the sea of endless. Being in that record shop with the micro bar perked my interest immediately on what else I could explore about beer culture in Tokyo.
Where to Grab a Cold One
When I returned to Tokyo, I made a point to dig into the beer culture in the city. It’s not as simple as just the types of beer they serve, but there’s a lot to how the Japanese culture is weaved into drinking beer, as it is with everything else the country’s people put their strength into. To start out, I figured it was appropriate to seek out a watering hole in arguably the city’s most exciting and popular neighborhood of Shibuya. Shibuya is well-known for its high-end cocktail bars and limitless food options, but how about brew? Luckily, about a 5-minute walk from my apartment was the appropriately named Goodbeer Faucets. The beer menu was long and diverse, with beers from all over the world, all on tap. Besides the selection of Japanese breweries from all over the country, the list featured Trappist beers from Belgium, German staples, and a fair share of micro-breweries from America. What was impressive about the selection of American beers was that not only were there the recognizable names such as Ballast Point and Rogue, but also included some unknown treasures such as Lucky Bucket Brewing’s Strawberry Blonde from Nebraska.
It’s possible that I’ve logged the most steps walking the streets of the Harajuku neighborhood more than any other area of Tokyo, due to its plethora of unique boutiques, sneaker shops, vintage stores, street food stalls, and cafes. So, I guess it’s fitting that I find myself at Harajuku Taproom taking a break from a long day of exploring. Even though the name implies a wide selection of brewers like the aforementioned Goodbeer Faucets, they only serve Baird Beer, one of the more popular small breweries in Japan. Walking into Harajuku Taproom reminded me a little bit of a snowboarder’s bar, conjuring thoughts of late-night drinks in Whistler, Canada. Full of wood furnishings and coat hooks on the wall, it was a cozy reprieve from the craziness of the city outside its doors. Baird Beer is probably the closest thing to American style beer that I drank in Japan. The IPA had bite, similar to the signature style of the Pacific Northwest. The brown ale was malty, and their pale lager resembled the big-name brands served around the world. Although Harajuku Taproom didn’t serve any beers that made me sit-up, it showed that Japanese brewing can hold its own in classic American style beer.
If there is a neighborhood in Tokyo that can still be considered as an “underground hot spot,” Daikanyama still flies just below the radar. Traditionally known more as a residential neighborhood, it has developed into one of the hippest and trendiest areas of the city to shop and eat. Some have even gone as far as to call it the “Brooklyn of Tokyo,” reflecting the young, artsy and hipster vibe. It’s here that you’ll find Spring Valley Brewing. From the outside, the brewery restaurant is an architectural pleaser, resembling an art gallery more than any beer hangout, and as you enter, you realize it’s very different. If you’ve ever been to Japan, you know that they are second to none in hospitality, and Spring Valley is no different. The staff, from the host to the waiters are all dressed in slacks and crisp white dress-shirts, not too different than if this were a steakhouse. But don’t worry, the vibe is still casual, and the guests are mainly comprised of locals looking for a break from shopping and a few tourists.
As you may have guessed, they serve only Spring Valley beer, offering a flight of their entire lineup. With names such as Daydream, On the Cloud, and Afterdark, each appropriately named to reflect its color and taste, it was hard to not try every single one. This was the best beer I had in Tokyo. The spread was brought out to the table with your typical sheet displaying name of each beer, as well as other useful information such as IBU, ABV, key hop, and the actual name of the brewer. For a few extra hundred yen (a few USD), you could even get the sampler with pairings, which included various nuts and fruits that harmonize well with each beer. Their porter is rich in traditional flavors but finishes refreshing, while their pale ale is slightly more citrusy than American varieties. These slight differences make Japanese craft beers that much easier to drink and consume more of.
Of course, as much as I enjoy searching for those unique craft beers wherever I am, there’s nothing wrong with a cold draft Asahi, which can be found at any izakaya or ramen shop in Tokyo. Some of my best nights in Japan were exploring the Shibuya sub-neighborhood of Nonbei Yokocho, full of tiny 4-5 seat bars, or downing grilled meat skewers with cold Asahi in “Piss Alley.” If you’re not in the mood to fill yourself on beer, nobody pours a refreshing whiskey highball like the Japanese. But if you do get a chance to explore the craft side of beer in Japan, I’m sure it’ll be interesting. Even if you feel their IPA is too citrusy or their stouts too clean for your taste, it’s instantly recognizable that Japan is adding a refreshing character to what we believe beer should be and putting their stamp on the scene.
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