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Cozy bars and complex brews on Shibuya’s busy backstreets

by

Special To The Japan Times

A short distance from Shibuya’s madding crowds is Craftheads, a veteran bar in Tokyo’s craft beer scene. I drift into this basement bar, grab a seat and reach for the menu before the masses arrive. I find a short roster of stalwart Japanese beers overshadowed by a catalog of American ales that are hard to find in Japan. The bottle menu in particular reads like a beer geek’s Christmas list — including brews from Lost Abbey, The Bruery, Founders and AleSmith but, with prices exceeding ¥4,000, I opt for a more reasonable ¥1,200 bottle of Alpha King from Three Floyds in Indiana. This pale ale packs an initial punch with its caramel malts and grapefruit bitterness, but that soon gives way to a minty, astringent finish — delicious. Reaching the bottom of my bottle, I head for somewhere a little cozier.

The prices at Øl (pronounced like “pool” without the “p”) also run high but its selection of Scandinavian brews is unbeatable. In a brewscape so dominated by American imports, this distinction alone merits a visit. Øl’s aesthetic is minimal and functional, with blond wood and warm lighting characteristic of Scandinavian interior design. It even has a little koselig, the Norwegian equivalent of the Danish hygge, a particular brand of coziness that refers to life’s simple pleasures: fireplaces, warm socks, hot drinks, family. Øl’s location was formerly occupied by the Danish brewery Mikkeller. At the beginning of October the new owners began an official partnership with Oslo Brewing Co. and five of Øl’s 20 taps are now dedicated to the brewery’s light, simple lagers and pilsners.

I start with a refreshing Blueberry Wit, which has just a touch of tart blueberry, before ordering a Double IPA from the Norwegian brewery 7 Fjell Ulriken. The Double IPA is a well-balanced beer with piney hops, caramel undertones and a citrus snap.

More beer cafe than bar, Øl is the kind of place to bring your laptop, take a sturdy seat and get some work done over an easy-drinking session beer and some snacks. True to its minimal approach, Øl has no kitchen, but instead partners with local food trucks that park outside on a rotating basis.

As the sky darkens, Øl becomes even more koselig and I force myself to leave before succumbing completely to its charms.

A short walk into Shibuya’s western outskirts, Goodbeer Faucets’ big yellow sign shines like a lighthouse from the bar’s second-story window. Faucets is a landmark on Tokyo’s craft beer map, thanks in no small part to General Manager Eldaad “Dede” Bribrom. I find Dede sitting at the bar, polishing off a half-pint and talking to a customer with his characteristic passion — work and play seem to be one and the same for this Israeli transplant. I take a seat next to him and order one of the house beers — a pleasantly roasty Smoke Pump Stout made by Baird Brewing — saving a cool ¥200 during happy hour.

Faucets’ owner and brewery engineer, Teruya Hori, tapped Dede to help open and run the bar in 2011.

“I have a vision: Center of Shibuya, 40 taps,” is how Dede recalls Hori pitched the idea to him. “I still don’t have a place, but let’s get it going.”

Dede’s reaction? “This man is crazy.” Five years later, Dede runs one of Tokyo’s gold-standard beer bars. Faucet’s Micro Matic tap system is the Rolls-Royce of beer service. It feeds 40 rotating taps with Japan’s longest tap lines continually cooled with glycol antifreeze, and blends carbon dioxide and nitrous for the ideal degree of carbonation. This massive system requires a walk-in refrigerator for keg storage.

“It’s a lot of work,” says Dede, “but we got used to it.”

In keeping with its state-of-the-art tap system, Faucets’ atmosphere is modern and sleek: all glass and steel.

For Dede, it’s not about the taps or the interiors — the pleasure of his job comes from spreading the gospel of good beer.

“I didn’t want to confine this place to only Japanese and American (beer) like other places, or only Belgian beer or only German. So I do everything.”

I admire Dede’s handiwork from my perch at the bar while drinking a Dubbel from the Daisen G brewery in Tottori Prefecture. It’s a perfect autumn beer, with flavors of fig, raisin bread and molasses.

I head out as the bar reaches capacity and make my way back to the center of Shibuya. The crowds are out, but I leave them behind and ride a nondescript, cramped elevator up to The Aldgate. Walking in, the ambiance is reminiscent of Øl, except I’ve traded in koselig for the dim comfort of an English pub.

The Aldgate’s 21 taps are divided between Japanese and imported beers, many of the latter hailing from the U.K. The Union Jack flapping out front impels me to order the easy-drinking Lightfoot Bitter from family brewing company Theakston in Masham, England. This is a woody and smooth golden ale with hints of vanilla and lemon tea.

At this time of night, The Aldgate’s staff and patrons are especially friendly, so I engage in some conversation — light, to match my beer.

Like the neighborhood around them, Shibuya’s beer bars take all comers. What makes the selection here stand out? Each have atmosphere and good service in spades — and owners who take their stewardship of beer very seriously.Beer walk: Cruising for brews in Shibuya

1. Craftheads 1-13-10 Jinnan, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6416-9474; open Tues.-Fri. 5 p.m.-midnight, Sat. 3 p.m.-11 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m.-10 p.m., closed Mon.; http://craftheads.jp

2. Øl 37-10 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-5738-7186; open Mon.-Thurs. 4 p.m.-midnight, Fri. 4 p.m.-2 a.m., Sat. midday-2 a.m., Sun. midday-midnight; www.oltokyo.jp

3. Goodbeer Faucets 1-29-1 Shoto, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3770-5544; open Mon.-Thurs. 5 p.m.-midnight, Fri. 5 p.m.-3 a.m., Sat. 1 p.m. -midnight, Sun. 5 p.m.-midnight; shibuya.goodbeerfaucets.jp

4. The Aldgate Shin-Iwasaki Bldg. 3F, 30-4 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3462-2983; open Mon. to Fri. 6 p.m.-2 a.m., Sat. and Sun. 5 p.m.-2 a.m.; www.the-aldgate.com