Taps At Ushitora
Taps At Ushitora

A Small Taste of Craft Beer in Japan – Part 3

Hitachino Nest turned around my disappointing Kyoto craft beer experience. At this point, my opinion on Japan’s craft beer scene was positive, though not overwhelmingly so. However, the last few days of our trip would prove that Japan is quickly becoming a craft beer destination, in the most unexpected ways.

Shimokitazawa – Poutine and Hefeweizens

Our last AirBnb for the trip was located not too far outside of Shimokitazawa, an area that is best described as Bohemian and at worst described as “hipster.” Small specialty shops line the narrow streets, sharing real estate with tiny restaurants where you can find not only great Japanese food, but also great food from around the world. My friend Neil, a fellow traveler and AnimeChicago member, called Shimokitazawa the Wicker Park of Tokyo.

Neil wasn’t wrong, though. It was an accurate analogy. Say what you will about the Chicago neighborhood, but there is one thing you can’t deny: there are some awesome bars and restaurants. Same is true for Shimokitazawa. Case in point – Robson Fries, a tiny poutine place nestled in the streets of Shimokitazawa. That’s right, poutine, a dish best known in Montreal, in a small district of Tokyo. While the poutine wasn’t 100% accurate to the Canadian specialty, that didn’t change the fact that it was great. And while this isn’t a food focused blog, I had to point this out because I was blown away. The chef spent some time in Canada learning about the dish.

That’s the kind of craft and care you can find in Shimokitazawa. So of course, while at the poutine place, I had to try a beer literally called Shimokitazawa Beer, brewed by Kankiku Meijyo Co. This beer was labeled on Untappd, a craft beer social media site, as a weizenbock, but I would say it was more hefeweizen than anything. The difference between the two aforementioned styles is that a weizenbock is a stronger version of a hefeweizen. Now, most craft beer drinkers in the States have had at least one hefeweizen at some point, but for the uninitiated, hefeweizens are cloudy, straw-colored beers that are refreshing while being more full-bodied than most light-colored beers. The main flavor notes of a hefeweizen are banana and clove. Hefeweizens are perfect for warm days and go great with all kinds of food.

Shimokitazawa Beer was a great example of this style. Refreshing, interesting and with the right amount of banana flavor to be call it a proper hefeweizen. It’s no surprise that this beer was good, Japan has had success with German beer styles for many years on the international stage. In large part, due to having more practice with German beer styles. Many Japanese breweries opened before about the last decade were heavily German influenced. Brewery owners in Japan would often hire German brewers to run the breweries or at least teach others German brewing techniques. It’s only recently that Japan’s craft brewers have drawn influence from the United States and other countries. I hope that, in the future, Japan’s ability to brew great German beers translates into Japan’s ability to mimic styles of other parts of the world.

Hipsters, Evangelion and Insane Beer at Ushitora

Poutine and hefeweizens weren’t the only surprises Shimokitazawa had in store for me. While we were planning our trip, I highlighted a few craft beer spots that I had to visit. Okay, maybe it was more than a few. However, one of the locations I had as a must was Ushitora. Check the multitude of best in Japan lists written by American craft beer blogs and you’ll see Ushitora. Most say similar things – a tiny, but passionate bar serving some of the best craft beer in Japan, including their own brews. I had created a map in Google highlighting many of the places I wanted to go, but having never been to Japan, it was hard to decipher how close things were to each other. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Ushitora was a few minutes walk from our Airbnb near Shimokitazawa. Of course, I had to go.

Located on the second floor of a stout little building just off the main streets of Shimokitazawa, Ushitora is the smallest beer bar I’ve ever been to. If it was packed, it could fit maybe fifteen people. It was like hanging out in someone’s garage, if that someone had a well-curated list of fine craft beers. So much love for beer was packed into this little space, including a treasure trove of Japanese craft beer journals, magazines, and books. Looking through these books, I found the enthusiasm that Japan has for good beer. Additionally, there were little Evangelion references, which always makes me smile. Some of Ushitora’s beers are named Second and Third Impact (though they weren’t available when I was there).

One server stood behind a short bar top, with different glassware surrounding him, for the different beer styles available. I perused the printed beer list, talking with my friends. At one point one of us said “I’m not sure which one to get”, to which the bartender replied “All of them.” Oh boy, was he right. Most places I only got a chance to try a beer or two, but here, the options were so good I had to try three.

#072 Mashi Mashi no Kuro ’16 Spring:
This was a massive Imperial Stout sitting at a towering 11% ABV. The flavors were massive, too. Big, boozy, and with a welcome bitter chocolate taste, this beer would put many American craft brewer’s versions of this style to shame. It had the right amount of everything you would imagine a beer of this style would have. Of course, it’s not Dark Lord nor Bourbon County, but it’s close. This is a beer to actively seek out if you are ever in Japan. Then again, you should go to Ushitora anyway.

#080 Yabai IPA:

The United States is the king of the IPA. If you don’t enjoy this bitter style, you will not enjoy this version either, because they were 100% inspired by American IPAs, especially the West Coast, which is known for their bitter and abrasive IPAs. What Ushitora did differently, however is that they dialed down the bitterness a bit, not much, to create a more balanced version, while keeping that abrasive feel.

#083 THE PALE Composed By MINOH KAORI:
I don’t remember too much about this beer (I was 3 beers into the day at this point), but I do remember it being a solid pale ale. Good to see that craft brewers in Japan are picking up on the trend of collaboration amongst brewers. Collaborations usually lead to unique styles and flavor choices. It also fosters the “us against them” (them being the macro brewers) message that brewers have been pushing for years.

Ushitora was a homerun. This was the exactly the place I was hoping to find. If you’re a craft beer fan and happen to be near Shimokitazawa, you have to go there.

The Best Craft Beer Bar in Japan

I’ve finally reached the climax of this beer travel story, and I’m glad I saved it for the end. We had only a few days left, and there was one place on my list that was and absolute, non-negotiable must-go: Beer Club Popeye. Way before I was even interested in Japanese craft beer, even before I ever imagined actually going to Japan, I knew about Beer Club Popeye. This place has that kind of notoriety, it transcends borders. That being said, I had very little idea what the place was like. Most descriptions were vague at best, only really describing the fantastic selection and the fanatical passion of the bar’s owner.

It was the last full day in Japan. We had a packed schedule, most notably a visit to Nagano Broadway, which was highly recommended from many fellow AnimeChicagoans. The best way to describe Nagano Broadway is as if Akihabara collided with a flea market. Akihabara was the shiny and new anime and manga goods, Nagano was the items that hung out in someone’s attic for a while. Now, for many people, that doesn’t sound too intriguing, but it was fun just walking around this multi-story mall seeing these little shops dedicated to just about any geek hobby you could imagine. On the top floor, there was a shop that sold animation cells and had an auction for an Evangelion cell. No, I didn’t buy it, it was listed for more than I paid for my plane tickets.

As the day turned to night, our weary group of travelers finally made it. This was the last real thing I wanted to do in Japan, so I had to live it up. Beer Club Popeye was happy to fulfill that wish. The first thing you notice when arriving at the bar is the lit up beer carrying the bar’s name. It was like a beacon in the night, guiding me home. The group of us, 10 strong, got there during dinner hours, but the staff was quick to accommodate us. The interior of Beer Club Popeye is very reminiscent of English pubs, with copious amounts of wood, TVs playing various sports, and a cozy, intimate design. If Beer Club Popeye didn’t have good beer, I’d still recommend it for its atmosphere alone.

But, as I’ve said many times before, “I’m here for the beer.” One thing I found out about Beer Club Popeye when we got there is that not only do they serve beers from all around Japan, but they also are brewing their own beer through the label Strange Brewing. I felt obligated to try their beers, seeing as how a place that has been known for craft beer in Japan for decades just recently started making their own. If previous passages in this article were any indication, you shouldn’t be surprised when I say that Strange Brewing makes some great brews.

Barbed Wire IIPA:
I would have never imagined a Double IPA as good as this in Japan, at least not as soon into their craft beer boom as this. One thing that young brewers often try is to mimic what I call “flagship styles”– Double IPAs, Imperial Stouts and Barleywines. These are big, flavorful and very complex brews that are difficult to get right and even more difficult to make unique. And given the lighter flavor leanings that Japan seems to prefer when it comes to beer, it’s somewhat surprising at how bold and bitter Barbed Wire was. It was as if it came from the West Coast of the United States.

Pig Head IPA:
It seems to be a theme in these articles that I try an IPA just about everywhere. I know that IPAs are not for everyone. In fact, many of the beer-loving friends I have a strong dislike for IPAs. IPAs at this point are ubiquitous, almost every brewery has one, at least in the United States. That trend appears to have transferred over to Japan, at least for now. Before American brewing blew up, Japan breweries were more focused on German styles. So IPAs are riding a wave of popularity, which will eventually die down. That being said, I enjoy IPAs, and I have a few favorites, but many that I’ve tried are lackluster, probably due to the near-necessity to brew them. Pig Head was a good IPA, not great, but that’s still saying something, considering that a lot of them are not that good.

One More Final

If there’s anything I learned in my brief stay in Japan, it’s that while Japan’s craft beer scene is still very small, there is no doubt that passionate and skilled people are churning out high quality brews. And although I checked a few places off my Japanese craft beer to-do list, my tne days there added even more. I know that when I go back, my itinerary is going to be packed with brewpubs, tasting events and restaurants. I’m hopeful that the rate of innovation in craft brewing that the United States saw in the last decade transfers over to Japan. Perhaps we will see brand new styles and interpretations in the coming years.

The trip feels like a dream to me now. A dream that I have pictures of on my phone. There were so many sights and experiences in that brief span of time. I know I have only taken tiniest of chips out of Japan’s deep cultural iceberg. And yet, I still think in that fleeting moment I caught a glimpse of a newly formed craft brewing revolution, almost as if I were watching the first signs of life in Earth’s primordial ooze. The mixture was there, and all it needed was a spark.

I’d like to thank Jamie, Gabe, Neil and the rest of the AnimeChicago Japan 2016 group for joining me on my craft beer excursions, giving me much needed outside feedback, and all the other awesome things each and every one of them added to a fantastic and memorable trip. Here’s to 2018!