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Sugar, spice and all things nice in Roppongi’s craft beer bars

by

Special To The Japan Times

Depending on who you ask, Roppongi is either Tokyo’s most sophisticated neighborhood or its seediest. Yet everyone can agree it’s one of the city’s most international. Each night, expats, emigres and immigrants wend their way through a landscape of restaurants, hostess bars, art galleries and nightclubs. Roppongi is a place of often garish contours and contrasts, its visible surface masking secrets at turns mundane and outlandish. There’s a place here for anyone and everyone to while away the hours until dawn. And when it comes to craft beer bars, Roppongi does not run short.

The evening has barely begun when I slip out of the winter cold and into the warm, basement bar of Ant ‘n Bee. Open since 2010, Ant ‘n Bee has a longer history than most craft beer bars in Tokyo. It has two rooms: a small non-smoking space and a stately L-shaped bar that holds all of Ant ‘n Bee’s charm. The place is nearly empty when I arrive. An Ella Fitzgerald song plays quietly from unseen speakers. I take a seat at one end of the bar, sizing up the menu and the 20 taps of Japanese craft brews. I settle on a pint of Kyoto Brewing Co.’s Nettaiha no Arashi, a well-balanced IPA with bitter hops that are smoothed over by honey notes. It’s the ideal tipple to wash down the bar’s garlic toast (or any of its other tasty morsels).

Ant ‘n Bee strikes a balance between classy and cozy, and has knowledgeable staff. It’s the kind of bar I’d be happy to occupy for many idle hours — easily done since they’re open until 6 a.m., seven days a week. But the slowly thickening haze of cigarette smoke in the main room soon drives me back out into the cold.

Compared to other watering holes in the neighborhood, Two Dogs Taproom offers the most competitive prices by far, especially if you arrive during happy hour. People continue to trickle in after I grab a seat at the bar, where owner Mike Verweyst is manning the taps. After 25 years in Japan, Verweyst opened Two Dogs in 2013 with the aim of creating a refuge for homesick U.S. expats.

“A lot of people come to Japan and they really want to get into the culture, and then they want to escape and get back home for a few hours,” says Verweyst. “That’s what we try to offer here.”

Home for Verweyst is Seattle — easy to tell from the Seattle Seahawks flags adorning the walls.

It’s the little details that create the sense you’re in an authentic American beer bar: the NFL game playing on the flat-screen TV, the U.S. brewery stickers lining the bar, the Nirvana songs shuffled into the playlist and the hundreds of polished pennies that tile the wall behind the taps. Two Dogs Taproom serves pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven to go with its more than 20 taps of U.S. and Japanese beers. The bar also has a house brew, the easy drinking Roppongi Pale Ale. Despite the setting, and perhaps due to the cold, I’m drawn to the seasonal Smoke and Fire Habanero Stout by Baird Beer in Shizuoka Prefecture. Made with locally grown habanero peppers, the beer is slightly smoky with more hops than is typical for the style. It has a slight habanero bite — just enough to tickle.

It’s common practice for U.S. breweries to send custom tap handles to bars along with their kegs, and Verweyst has installed these, too.

“I love the tap handles. They look really cool when you get some good ones. You get a really cool tap handle, and people drink that beer more. They see it, they sit at the bar: boom,” he says with a grin. “It works all the time.”

When I leave, the streets are teeming, and I dodge a few taxis and touts on the way to my final stop for the night. Open since 2014, BrewDog Roppongi is just one of nearly 50 brewpubs worldwide run by the titular Scottish craft-brewing behemoth. The space is modern and sleek, but the functioning Ms. Pac-Man tabletop and Nintendo Super Famicon by the door add a retro touch. The crowd and staff are the most international of the night.

I belly up to the bar and inspect tonight’s offerings from the flat-screen menus suspended above. BrewDog Roppongi offers a handful of “headliners,” flagship titles that never leave the menu, as well as a number of rotating and seasonal beers, all of which are cold-shipped to maintain quality. A few guest taps from European and Japanese craft breweries round out the selection.

BrewDog’s own Neon Overlord, billed as a mango-chili India Pale Ale, piques my interest. True to its name, the beer is practically effervescent — and goes great with pad thai. The sweetness from the mango hits my palate first, followed closely by a true chili spice that lingers long after each sip. It’s unusual to say the least but sums up BrewDog’s experimental approach to beer. The brewery isn’t afraid to push flavors, styles and brewing techniques to the limit.

I order BrewDog’s Cocoa Psycho for dessert, a Russian-style imperial stout with a Scotch-like burn and hints of black licorice. Mostly, though, it tastes of a mix of bitter and milk chocolate, which belies its 10 percent alcohol content. By the time I reach the bottom of my glass I’m sufficiently insulated against the cold outside. I buy a few bottles to take home and opt for the long way back to the station, a route that curves down dark alleys and under trees illuminated with strings of lights, the perfect location for pondering Roppongi’s incongruous allure.

Beer walk: Cruising for brews in Roppongi