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A journey to the center of Tokyo’s crowded craft beer scene

by Davey Young

Special To The Japan Times

It may be located in the center of Tokyo but people always seem to be passing through Kanda on their way to someplace else: north to Akihabara, east to Asakusa, south to Tokyo Station or west to the Imperial Palace. This liminal neighborhood can feel like a no man’s land of offices, banal apartments and elevated train tracks, but it is not without its charms. Off the street, many Tokyoites find refuge in its pachinko parlors, cramped izakaya taverns and, unexpectedly, craft beer bars.

My journey to Kanda starts in the south Tokyo brewery of one of those bars.

As the doors open, I’m hit with the acrid, bready smell of fermentation. The lights switch on to reveal gleaming tanks and stacks of empty kegs. There’s a low bubbling sound emanating from the back of the room.

“That sound you hear is blow-off from pressure fermentation,” Jason Koehler informs me as he strides to inspect the blow-off bucket, where a tube runs carbon dioxide, a byproduct of fermentation, through a sterile water solution to prevent contamination. “Oh yeah,” he says, inspecting the brew, “going good.” The steady gurgling means the billions of yeast cells inside the fermentation tank are doing their job: converting sugars from malt into alcohol. The result will be a batch of DevilCraft’s Arch Devil Imperial Stout, which took home a gold medal at the World Beer Cup in Philadelphia earlier this year.

Koehler is a founding partner of DevilCraft Craft Beer & Pizza, a favorite among Tokyo’s craft beer aficionados for its unique brews. DevilCraft’s first shop opened in Kanda in 2011, but they now have branches in the districts of Hamamatsucho and Gotanda. Their Osaki brewery, where we are now, opened in 2015 on the south side of Tokyo in an old factory that once made components for cell phones. The location is fitting.

“There’s a saying that farmers make wine but engineers make beer,” Koehler says as he measures the sugar levels of the stout. “Beer couldn’t exist without technology.”

DevilCraft sells roughly 90 percent of their product in-house, which allows them to experiment with more challenging flavors than other local outfits.

“We don’t have any real set recipes. Since we’re making beer for ourselves, we can make anything that we want,” he says.

Because “no brewery tour would be complete without beer,” we enjoy a few samples poured straight from the pressure fermenters as we chat. My favorite — by far — is DevilCraft’s Robust Porter, made with about 40 percent German beech smoked malt, which lends the dark beer a smoky flavor and a hint of vanilla.

In Kanda, I head toward DevilCraft’s intimate three-story shop for some pizza and another pint. The bar is wildly popular, with patrons often spilling out onto the street in the evenings — and its Chicago-style deep-dish pizzas attract as much attention as the beer. The cozy first floor bar is an ideal place to rub elbows with fellow beer lovers, while the second and third floors are better suited for a date or night out with friends. My reservation lands me on the top floor, where I wash down a buffalo chicken pizza with DevilCraft’s piney and sweet Double Devil #2 IPA.

Kanda has perhaps the highest concentration of craft beer bars in Tokyo, and I’m pressed for choice on where to head next. Within a stone’s throw from DevilCraft are Kura Kura Ji-beer House and Beer & Wine 65, which has an excellent bottle selection, but I bypass them and head to Tap×Tap just beyond the bright lights of the pachinko parlors and watering holes that line Kanda’s elevated train tracks.

Tap×Tap serves 20 draught ales, mostly Japanese with a few imports, at exceptionally low prices. It’s a homespun space, the kind of bar where you can read as you sip your beer beside the mellow clientele. For added peace, I sit near the back, and order a limited release Imperial Pale Lager from Kure Beer in Hiroshima Prefecture: a grassy, citrusy brew with a crisp, clean finish.

The vast majority of beer styles qualify as ales, which makes this lager a little unusual for a craft beer. Ales ferment at the top of the fermentation tank at between 14-21 degrees Celsius, whereas lagers utilize strains of yeast that ferment at the bottom of the tank at between 4 and 12 degrees Celsius and are easier to make on a large scale — this is partly why major producers such as Asahi and Budweiser brew them. The ale family provides a broader canvas for the brewer’s brush, and so craft brewers tend to shy away from lagers. Kure’s, however, packs a memorable punch.

I head back onto the streets in search of another new find. Heading north, I cruise by Yona Yona Beer Works, a bar and restaurant operated by Nagano-based Yo-Ho Brewing Co., one of Japan’s most recognizable craft beer makers. The bar has enticing homemade sausages and great service, but since I can find most of Yo-Ho’s beers at my local convenience store, I continue on to Craft Beer Market’s Awajicho branch.

This is one of nine Craft Beer Markets — and counting — in Tokyo, part of an empire that offers unbeatable prices: ¥780 per pint for every beer, domestic or import. Its secret is out, so make sure you call ahead for a reservation.

The Awajicho branch is welcoming and open, and the mood inside is often boisterous. Smiles greet me from both staff and patrons as I take a seat at the counter. The Weizenbock I order, made by Shizuoka Prefecture’s Beer Buddy, is bready with strong hints of banana and mango.

As I drain my glass, I begin to reflect on all the unentered bars and undrunk beers left in this neighborhood. I’ve barely begun.

Craft beer bars have proliferated in Kanda, attracting patrons from all across the city. Exactly why this area has become such a hot spot is a mystery — one that will require more fieldwork.

Beer walk: Cruising for brews in Kanda

DevilCraft 4-2-3 Nihonbashi Muromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-6265-1779; open Mon.-Fri. 5-10:30 p.m. (L.O. for drinks), Sat. 3-10:30 p.m. (L.O. for drinks), Sun. 3-9:30 p.m. (L.O. for drinks); www.en.devilcraft.jp

Kura Kura 1-4-6 Kajicho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; 03-6206-8866; open Mon.-Fri. 5-11:30 p.m., Sat. 4-11:30 p.m., closed Sun.; www.j-beer.com

Beer & Wine 65 1-3-7 Kajicho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; 03-3525-8705; open Mon. to Sat. 6 p.m.-7 a.m., Sun. 6 p.m.-midnight; www.kanda65.com

Tap×Tap 2-9-18 Kajicho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; 03-6206-4672; open Mon. to Sat. 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-11 p.m., Sun. 3-10:30 p.m.; www.facebook.com/taptapkanda