The Food File does not often leave Tokyo. Why should we, when there’s so much great eating to be had within the sprawling confines of this massive city? But when it comes to good drinking, that’s a different story altogether. We will gladly go the extra mile (or 70) if there’s a pint or two of fine ale to be found at the end of the trail.
Which is why, the other day, we found ourselves chugging down the coast by train to Numazu, a quiet city on the edge of Suruga Bay at the very top of the Izu Peninsula. Now, 100 km may seem like quite a long way to go to an obscure neck of the woods just to sink some suds. But this was not any old beer. Numazu is home to one of the finest microbreweries in the country.
Bryan Baird’s eponymous brewery has been up and running for more than four years now, and the fruits of his labor are starting to gain a following well beyond the borders of Shizuoka Prefecture. But the only place where you can sample the entire range of his output is at the Fishmarket Taphouse, the simple, friendly pub he runs overlooking Numazu’s bustling little fishing port and ferry terminal.
Draft beer is best drunk as young as possible — especially handcrafted microbrews. Since Baird’s compact (but impressively sophisticated) brewhouse is right below the bar, you won’t find many fresher than these. He produces six varieties year-round, each with its own distinct flavor profile ranging from bracingly hoppy to rich and malty, and each with its own quirky name: Rising Sun Pale Ale; Red Rose Amber Ale; Teikoku IPA; Angry Boy Brown Ale; Kurofune Porter; and Shimaguni Stout. They are all excellent and, if you pace yourself, it is not impossible to try them all in turn — though you may find it easier to remember and compare them if you order them by the glass (500 yen) rather than by the full U.S. pint (700 yen).
However, be sure to pace yourself, so you can also try the seasonal specials and limited-edition brews, of which there are likely to be a couple on tap at any one time. Currently, the special of the month is Natsumikan Summer Ale — made with substantial quantities of those selfsame citrus fruits, whose tart flavor lies midway between oranges and grapefruits. It takes a while for your taste buds to adjust to the sharp, lingering tartness of this utterly unique beer. But for adventurous drinkers, this is exactly the kind of beer you need in the oppressive heat of a Japanese summer.
Beer like this is virtually a meal in itself, especially when you have such a variety of flavors. But with alcohol levels of well over 5 percent in these brews, some solid fuel is definitely a good idea. There is a good range of pub grub here, drawing on German and Tex-Mex influences, with a pasta dish of the day if you need more substantial fare. We especially enjoyed the Taproom Soft Tapas, featuring three different fillings (spicy beef; chili beans and sesame chicken).
Given the proximity of the fishing port, it is disappointing that there are not more seafood dishes on the menu. The Aji (horse mackerel) Fish Fry was quite acceptable, especially with its accompaniment of lemon- and herb-dressed fried potatoes. But serious fish lovers might want to take a break in between the beer courses (say between the IPA and the dry Irish-style stout), to investigate the sushi shops and assorted holes-in-the-wall just around the corner in the alleys in front of the wharves. Much of the seafood here is as fresh as you’d find in Tsukiji, and often better priced too.
Numazu is quite accessible as a day-trip from Tokyo — and you can easily sleep off all that beer on the two-hour train ride home. But it makes even more sense to tie it in to an onsen trip in the Izu Peninsula. There are ferries linking Numazu with ports down the still relatively undeveloped west coast, especially the area just to the south of Matsuzaka. Just as long as you’re not driving, the Fishmarket Taproom is the perfect watering hole for the outward journey or the return (or both).
For those of us who prefer to stay closer to the creature comforts of the city, Baird Beers (in bottles) can be ordered online from their classy bilingual Web site. They are also starting to appear at select outlets around Tokyo.
So far, the only place you will find them on tap is at Popeye, in the backstreets of Ryogoku, just a few minutes from the sumo stadium. This remarkable pub is a mecca for all microbrew enthusiasts and carries scores of jibiiru (locally brewed beers) from all around the country. Baird’s hearty Kurofune (“Black Ship”) Porter is regularly featured on tap here. Ebony-black in color, intense and chocolate-rich in flavor, it is full bodied and very substantial.
Popeye is also the home base for Japan’s first association of jibiiru lovers. Known as the Good Beer Club, it is modeled after the U.K. organization CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) and is dedicated to the same worthy aim — promoting the growth and appreciation of high quality, cask-conditioned regional beers. Their Web site ( www.good beerclub.org/ ) and their other promotional material is only in Japanese, but their annual beer festival, held at Popeye in March, is not to be missed whatever language you speak.
Popeye, 2-18-7 Ryogoku, Sumida-ku; tel: (03) 3633-2120. www.lares.dti.ne.jp/~ppy/index2.htm Open 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; closed Sundays.
Another place that serves of Baird beers — including Natsumikan Ale on tap — is Takara, a stylish, contemporary izakaya in the basement of the Tokyo International Forum in Yurakucho. While the main focus is on quality sake from noted kura around the country, it also purveys shochu and wine — and a good selection of foods that fit each category of booze.
The atmosphere is convivial, with much of the seating around a large communal table of striking lacquered red. There are also smaller tables, as well as secluded dining areas for small groups. But the most enjoyable place to sit is at the elevated area under the high, echoing ceiling.
Takara, Tokyo International Forum B1, 3-5-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 5223-9888; www.gnavi.co.jp/musshu/ Open daily 11:30 a.m.-2.30 p.m. and 5-11 p.m. (Saturdays, Sundays and holidays until 10 p.m.). Reservations recommended.
The Food File has another favorite regional brew: Yona Yona Ale, from Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture. In cans, as sold at a growing number of stores, it’s good. But on draft, dispensed from hand-pulled pumps, it’s downright superb.
One of the few places in Tokyo where you’ll find it is The Aldgate, a welcoming basement pub close by Tokyu Hands in Shibuya. Besides understanding the merits of good beer, The Aldgate also draws a regular clientele by dint of its remarkable collection of ’60s/’70s classic British rock (most on LPs), an agreeable menu of pub-grub standards (including plenty of vegetarian options), soccer on the box (but only big matches) and occasional live-music nights.
The Aldgate, World Building B1, 12-9 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3462-2983; www.the-aldgate.com Open 6 p.m.-2 a.m. (Sundays & holidays 5 p.m.-2 a.m.)
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5