On a Friday night in Tokyo, there’s no place livelier than Shibuya. But on Friday, Feb. 20, four pubs there were far busier than usual thanks to a crowd of revelers on a pub crawl called “Beer Gang” — the inaugural event of the Good Beer Club, a newly formed group already with more than 150 members that bills itself as “Japan’s first beer-consumer organization.”
Beginning at 7 p.m., around 60 GBC volunteers and some 40 fellow travelers — of whom around 90 percent in all were Japanese — put up small “Good Beer Club” signs at tables in each of four pubs offering traditional styles of beer: The Aldgate (British-style real ale); Belgo (Belgian ales); German Farm Grill (regional German beers); and L’ Espoir (Japanese microbrews).
Small groups of beer enthusiasts then made the rounds, having a beer or two at each location. Though the event was planned to wrap up at 10 p.m., participants could be seen past midnight in every pub on the list.
Harumi Kumagai, principal organizer of the event, was naturally apprehensive about the group’s baptism by fire. “I was a bit concerned at first about how many people we’d have, but I didn’t expect that this many people would enjoy good beer together,” he said, adding: “I’m really glad that so many people were able to become friends over a few glasses of tasty beer.”
Indeed, drinkers clustering around the GBC tables in each pub already felt they had something in common, and had no difficulty striking up conversations with strangers even though this is something many Japanese are normally reluctant to do.
“This is great. Usually when you bar hop, it takes time to break the ice, but this group was friendly from the start,” enthused Phred Kaufman, a Hokkaido-based beer importer and bar owner who made a special trip to Tokyo for the event. “I’ve already told the GBC directors that I want to head-up the Hokkaido division and do the same thing in Sapporo soon.”
Asami Ito, a GBC volunteer at The Aldgate, described the event as “delicious” as she hoisted another pint of Yona Yona Pale Ale. “I have been a fan of good beer for, well, eight years . . . legally,” she added with a laugh.
The club’s formation in January of this year can be considered a reaction to the growing popularity of the weakly flavored, low-malt imitation beer known as happoshu, and the general “dumbing down” of Japanese mass-produced beer. Founders of the group — whose current 1,500 yen membership (3,000 yen for a full year from Oct. 1) entitles members to newsletters and a discount card valid at participating pubs and bars — are fans of traditional, cask-conditioned beer known as “real ale.” In Britain, where pub culture is so ingrained in the fabric of society, a consumer movement called the Campaign for Real Ale (www.camra.org.uk), arose in the mid-1970s to protest the gradual replacement of real ale with mass-produced and artificially carbonated beer by an increasingly concentrated industry.
However, although it is patterning itself after CAMRA, the Good Beer Club, as its name implies, seeks to popularize not just real ale, but all traditional styles of beer.
Even though regulations were eased in Japan in 1994 to allow the operation of small beer breweries, traditional-style ales have not really caught on, despite the efforts of more than 200 small brewers around the country. By comparison, the United States now has thousands of small, independent breweries.
“At the moment, I’m going through a midlife beer crisis,” admitted Wayne Gabel, an American who lived in Germany for two years before moving to Tokyo in the 1990s. “Every time I visit the States, I’m reminded of all of the interesting brews I’m missing out on, so a two-week vacation turns into a search-and-destroy mission,” he said, noting that there is a disappointing lack of variety on the shelves of most liquor stores or bars here.
Warming to his theme, Wayne said he “thought that deregulation of Japan’s brewing laws would usher in a new era for beer lovers who know there’s more to life than lager. Sure, things are better. But the revolution has stalled, so someone has to give it a swift kick to get things moving again.
“If the Good Beer Club can spread the good word in a way that’s free of pressure and posing, then we’ll all have a reason to say ‘Cheers.’ Good times and good taste, what more do you need?”
What is ‘real ale’?
In simple terms, real ale is beer that has been fermented in a sealed vessel (called a cask) and served by hand pump without the use of artificial carbonation, such as from cylinders of compressed carbon dioxide gas. Real ale has a much finer carbonation than ordinary beer and a thick, creamy head.
For a more detailed explanation, go to www.camra.org.uk and click on “Ask if it’s Cask.”
‘Real’ Tokyo oases
Beer Club Popeye: This beer mecca — a short walk from JR Ryogoku Station in Sumida Ward — always has three real ales on hand pumps and 40 taps for specialty beers. Tel. (03) 3633-2120.
Helmsdale: This small pub near the Red Cross Hospital in Hiroo, Shibuya Ward, Yona Yona Real Ale brewed in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, is served in Imperial pint (20-ounce) glasses. For those who like chasers, it also has an awesome collection of single-malt Scotches. Tel. (03) 3486-4220.
The Aldgate: A British-style pub in Shibuya between the Seibu department store and Tokyu Hands, this is another watering hole for fans of Yona Yona Real Ale. Tel. (03) 3462-2983.
Belgo: A small woody beer cellar across the street from Shibuya Police Station on Meiji Dori, this is a must for lovers of Belgian beer. Tel. (03) 3409-4442.
German Farm Grill: A German restaurant/pub with interesting regional German beers. Tel. (03) 5457-2871.
L’ Espoir: A beer bar near the Shibuya Station’s Inokashira Line entrance, this is the spot for lovers of Japanese and foreign microbrews. Tel. (03) 3461-8264.