Craft beer has come a long way in Tokyo. Twenty years ago, the market was mostly made up of generic lagers produced by major brewers such as Kirin and Asahi. Brewing laws prevented small players from entering the fray, and regulators were skeptical there would be a market for craft beer. Popeye, a bar in eastern Tokyo’s Ryogoku neighborhood, was the first to prove them wrong when it began serving Echigo Beer in 1995. Following Popeye’s lead, specialty bars began bubbling up all across the city, serving an ever-expanding array of ales and lagers concocted by small-scale breweries across the country and the world.
The number of such venues has spiked over the past few years and, despite frequent forecasts that craft beer in Tokyo has reached its saturation point, new bars continue to open and — most importantly — to attract customers.
I contemplate this while looking out the window at PDX Taproom as I sip a glass of Old Tavern Rat, a sweet and strong Barleywine-style ale from Lompoc Brewing out of Portland, Oregon. Through the glass, I watch shoppers wander the backstreets of Tokyo’s Shibuya district as ’90s rock plays over the quiet thrum of conversation behind me.
More beer cafe than bar, PDX Taproom, which opened in November of 2015, is the perfect place for an afternoon pint while you ponder the popularity of artisanal beer. PDX’s recipe for success? Portland. The taproom exclusively serves Oregon beers on all 10 of its taps. PDX might be part of Tokyo’s recent, strange infatuation with Portland, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a place as cozy as this offering a better selection of the Pacific Northwest’s characteristically hoppy ales.
The sun is still shining when I reach the bottom of my glass, so I shove off and begin walking up Cat Street, a pedestrian-friendly lane lined with boutiques and restaurants that runs roughly parallel with the bustling Meiji-dori toward Omotesando and Harajuku. This area is more associated with high fashion and Kyary Pamyu Pamyu than fine brews, but as craft beer and specialty bars have become fashionable, these neighborhoods have become great places to get a handle on the city’s current craft beer craze.
I don’t walk far before reaching another prime example of the American influence on Japan’s beer boom, Smokehouse, an American-style barbecue restaurant by Tokyo’s own T.Y. Harbor Brewery. Although it can sometimes seem as though the entire city is pushing the artisanal-beer gospel, not everyone has been converted. While waiting, I overhear a customer order a “nama” (draft beer), which typically refers to a generic domestic lager rather than more flavorful options. The bartender doesn’t bat an eye. Instead she asks a few questions to gauge his palate before making a recommendation: the T.Y. Harbor IPA. Another nama drinker may soon fall victim to the pleasures of craft beer.
It can be a challenge to get a seat here, especially around dinnertime on the weekend, but as luck would have it, a prime spot on the patio remains unclaimed. Five of Smokehouse’s 11 taps serve guest beers, but the remaining T.Y. Harbor options are more reasonable. Between bites of brisket and pulled pork, I sip a pint of Yomogi Ale, which is made with seasonal yomogi (Japanese mugwort). It is a smooth and creamy brew with a hint of herbal spiciness that would have been well complimented by the Coffee Porter sold at The Roastery cafe downstairs — it is hard to resist picking up a bottle after dinner.
After leaving, I round the corner from Omotesando onto Meiji-dori and, as the sky darkens, head toward the mirrored entrance of Tokyu Plaza at the main intersection of Harajuku. For the second summer in a row, Nagano-based Yo-Ho Brewing Co. will be hosting the Omohara Beer Forest on the Plaza’s outdoor terrace eight stories above street level. From June 24 to Sept. 4, patrons will be able to sip Yo-Ho’s flagship and award-winning Yona Yona Ale, along with a few others.
To reach the fourth stop of the night, I must venture into the belly of the beast: the tourist mecca that is Takeshita-dori. By day it’s bustling, but the world capital of cute kawaii culture is a quieter affair after dark. However, on an alleyway off the main street, Harajuku Taproom is as boisterous as ever.
A homey bar by Shizuoka Prefecture’s Baird Beer, Harajuku Taproom serves superb izakaya (Japanese tavern) fare with an emphasis on yakitori. For a late night snack I order fried tofu and edamame cooked in Baird’s own Shimaguni Stout. The atmosphere and beers here are good examples of how Baird successfully balances Western and Japanese sensibilities, and its appreciation of craftsmanship. Each of Baird’s taprooms features a special house beer, and the Harajuku Ale is made like an English-style real ale: cask-conditioned and unfiltered. The Wabi-Sabi Pale Ale, on the other hand, is brewed with wasabi and tea, it’s earthy and refreshing with a vegetal pinch.
Meandering north along winding backstreets takes me to the last stop of the night: Big Love. This record shop has a small coffee stand and three taps serving craft beer from Shiga Kogen, another Nagano brewery. After flipping through some records, I wander over to the bar and order a pint of So Sexy Brown, a brew produced in collaboration with California-based Pizza Port Brewing Co. As with wine, trying to describe the taste of beer can be an ostentatious affair, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that So Sexy Brown tasted of roasted nuts, toffee and burnt rubber — complex and delicious. Big Love may cater primarily to vinyl hounds, but beer snobs have a place here as well.
As the crowd thins, I make my way back onto the streets of Harajuku. Many of the shops are now shuttered, and the tourists have dispersed for the evening.
Yes, this neighborhood may seem to be a hub for Japan’s fashion conscious youth, but if you know where to look, it has just as much to offer beer lovers.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5