Craft beer in Shinjuku: Finding gruit and gueze among the glitz and grime

by Davey Young

Special To The Japan Times

Shinjuku is, in many ways, the center of Japan. It’s the seat of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, home to the busiest train station in the world and has been immortalized countless times in film and literature. For many first-timers, a night in this frenetic Tokyo neighborhood means retracing Bill Murray’s steps in “Lost in Translation” to drink at the Park Hyatt or exploring gritty microbars in the Golden Gai entertainment district. But in recent years options have expanded: drinking establishments are catering to a newer breed of drinker.

“The number of restaurants and bars that offer craft beer has increased so much,” says Hiroyuki Fujiwara, founder of the Japan Beer Journalists Association.

Inside the association’s Shinjuku offices, Fujiwara explains that he founded the JBJA in 2010 to educate people about the growing craft beer industry. The JBJA also operates the Beer Journalist Academy, a workshop that trains people to write about beer. As Fujiwara sees it, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“My hope is that one day people can easily select craft beer anywhere in Japan — not just at so-called ‘craft beer’ bars,” he says. “And even at any izakaya (traditional taverns) around here.”

For the time being, however, specialty craft beer bars will have to do. And Watering Hole, on the south side of Shinjuku, is about as special as they come.

It’s already half full when I arrive after parting ways with Fujiwara. Patrons cradle pints at the bar or talk animatedly at tables over tasting flights, which the bar offers on weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. There’s still space to move, but on days when Watering Hole hosts a “meet the brewer” or “tap takeover” event, it can be standing room only. Along with the unusual drinks on offer, the food menu is original enough to garner attention in its own right, and the staff are more knowledgeable than most when it comes to beer.

The bar’s 20 taps represent a range of styles, roughly split between domestic and imported beer. There always seems to be two or three barley wines or strong ales on draft — styles that can be hard to come by elsewhere in Tokyo. Its bottle list is worthy of serious attention from any aspiring beer geek. It includes such rarities in Japan as Jopen Koyt, a Dutch gruit beer made from a recipe dating to 1407, and three different vintages of Switzerland’s Abbaye de Saint Bon-Chien. I opt for a bottle of the Oude Geuze Vieille from Belgian Brewery Oud Beersel, which is a bargain at ¥2,000 considering it’s so far from home.

Bracing and often sour, geuze is a centuries-old style that is enjoying something of a renaissance in the beer world at the moment. It’s made by blending different vintages of lambic ales, which are spontaneously fermented from wild yeast and bacteria rather than through the controlled addition of cultivated yeast strains.

As the bar reaches capacity I slip out and walk north to Tap Stand. Though only open six months, Tap Stand’s excellent beers and pizzas have been making waves. Pints here are all ¥1,000 and its 22 taps are evenly split between Japanese and import beers, with the latter often hiding some real finds. I order a Mocha IPA from San Diego’s Stone Brewing and am promptly reminded why I choose to drink craft beer at all. The beer improbably and seamlessly melds flavors of coffee and cacao nibs with strong hops. Its initial sweetness gives way to a pleasant, lingering bitterness that demands another sip. It’s a beer that tells a story — one I won’t soon forget.

After polishing off a sukiyaki pizza, and with the two-hour seating time limit almost up, I take advantage of Tap Stand’s best feature: carry out brews. I order a Jasmine IPA from Elysian Brewing in Seattle and head into the heart of Shinjuku.

By now the neighborhood is buzzing. I make my way between tourists and locals, crossing neon-lit streets and passing through shadowy alleys to reach my final stop of the night: Vector.

I have a choice to make between the operation’s sister bars, Vector and Vector Beer Factory, which are almost neighbors. Both serve exclusively Japanese craft beer at some of the lowest prices in Tokyo — only slightly offset by a ¥300 seating charge. The older of the two, Vector, has 10 taps and, in terms of food, specializes in gyūtan (beef tongue). A few doors down, Vector Beer Factory (aka V.B. Factory) serves more Western pub fare to go with its 17 taps. Ten of these 17 are dedicated to India Pale Ale, but as I’ve already had my fill of that style for the night, I opt for the original Vector. I’ve also got a serious craving for their gyūtan-katsu (breaded and fried beef-tongue cutlet). Both Vector bars offer tasting flights for ¥1,000, but I only have eyes for the Pale Ale from Minoh Beer in Osaka. It’s creamy and smooth, but slightly bitter with hints of oak. I order 1.5 liters of it — an “Amazon Pint” — for ¥2,000.

Sitting on the street-side patio as the night winds down, I reflect on something else Fujiwara told me.

“Craft beer is more expensive than domestic beer, so you naturally think only the rich or snobs drink craft beer, but I don’t think so,” he said. “Do you think the young people who spend ¥1,000 or sometimes ¥1,500 for one pint of beer are rich? No. They want to spend money on beer because they want to drink good beer.”

It takes me a while, but I eventually glimpse the bottom of my 1.5-liter glass. My stomach is full, my wallet empty, my inner beer geek is satiated. My night may be drawing to a close, but Shinjuku is just getting started.

Beer walk: Cruising for brews in Shinjuku

1. Watering Hole

5-26-5 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6380-6115; open daily 3-11:30 p.m.;

2. Tap Stand

3-35-3 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-3226-0566; open daily 3-11:30 p.m.;

3. V.B. Factory

1-36-7 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-5315-4744; open Mon. to Sat. 5 p.m.-midnight, closed Sun.; (Vector, a few shops south of V.B. Factory at 1-36-5 Shinjuku, is open every day from 5 p.m.-2 a.m.)

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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