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Koenji’s alehouses and brewpubs put the craft back in beer

by Davey Young

Often touted as Tokyo’s apex of cool, Koenji is a maze of narrow mixed-use streets, where the city’s trendsetters, en route to hip cafes, cross paths with pensioners browsing cheap vegetables and various knickknacks.

Koenji is a neighborhood that seemingly has it all, or at least something for everyone. This extends to the area’s beer bars, from British alehouses to local brewpubs and maid cafes.

My day starts with a late lunch at El Pato, which dishes up authentic American diner fare and has two taps dedicated to Nagano Prefecture’s Shiga Kogen Beer and a small but well curated bottle list sporting American west coast brews, including several from San Francisco-based Anchor Brewing, which occupies a hallowed place in the story of American beer. Anchor, which can trace its history back to the 1849 gold rush, played a key role in jump-starting the revival of craft beer in the U.S. in the 1980s. Its flagship brew, Anchor Steam, is the standard-bearer of a distinctly American style of beer.

Early steam beer, also known as California Common, was made by fermenting lager yeast at ale temperatures and allowing the beer to cool in shallow pans in the open air of San Francisco’s frontier rooftops, from which the style most likely takes its peculiar name. Anchor’s prototypical recipe blends pale and caramel malts balanced by gently floral hops, making for easy afternoon drinking at only 4.9% alcohol by volume — perfect for washing down a tasty BLT at El Pato.

I walk off the meal while window shopping among Koenji’s sundry boutiques before popping into Koenji Bakushi Kobo Open since 2010, this shop is the Kobo chain’s original cornerstone, with its other brewpub locations numbering half a dozen and mostly located along the Chuo line. Kobo brewpubs offer the lowest craft beer prices in Tokyo — as low as ¥410 for a pint — largely through avoiding transportation tax by brewing on premises, but also by brewing low-malt beer that the government classifies as happōshu instead of beer.

This distinction is largely academic, but Kobo’s beers are notorious for their off-putting saccharinity. That said, Koenji Bakushu Kobo’s comfortable space, which features communal seating around rustic tables, evokes the social nature of beer culture. This makes it an ideal place for a relaxed pint among friends, so long as you’re willing to sacrifice the quality of the product for the laid-back atmosphere.

Soon I’m back on Koenji’s easy streets, where I wander languidly south toward the station in search of better beer. I forego the six taps and pinafore-clad staff at Tokyo’s only craft beer maid cafe, Maid in Wonderland, and continue on to nearby Beer Engine as the sun dips behind the low-rise buildings that blanket Tokyo’s western reaches. Dim lights, scuffed walls, and an old Skatalites record set the scene as I enter. Beer Engine, which celebrated its first anniversary this month, has filled a notable niche in Tokyo’s craft beer scene.

“Simply put, I think hand pumps are cool. I like the beer from a hand pump, and I like the action of pumping the beer, but there are few beer bars that have a lot of hand pumps, so I opened this place,” says owner Soichiro Itsukage as he goes to work on one his five Angram hand pumps, which rely on good old-fashioned elbow grease instead of gas to move beer from cask to glass.

“I like old things and analog things, things that don’t require any electricity or gas. And if you use a hand pump, the malt flavor comes to the front. American hops are popular now, but beer with those hops should be chilled a while and are served best with gas. But beer that’s malt-forward is best without gas,” he says.

Itsukage chooses his lineup to feature malty beers, and today’s Kisoji Porter is thin-bodied and slightly smoky with hints of roasted oats. Hand pumps are rooted in the English beer tradition and so are well suited to porters, the workingman’s tipple so ubiquitous in Georgian England that it instigated the infamous — and deadly — London Beer Flood of 1814. Naturally, Itsukage serves a proper imperial pint.

I’ve room for one more after departing Beer Engine, but I’m still pressed for choice in this neighborhood so chock-a-block with watering holes. I briefly consider Bankan on the south side of the station, but despite the chic interior and excellent beer list, it is unabashedly overpriced. I opt instead to visit Craft Beer Market Koenji. Although it’s similar to the other seven locations around Tokyo, Craft Beer Market’s Koenji outpost still pours the area’s best selection from its ever-changing 30 taps.

It’s raining lightly as I head for my final destination at the center of Koenji’s shopping district, and once inside I’m guided to a small table in the long, narrow bar. It’s here that I enjoy the evening’s surprise: a Kamikaze Russian Imperial Stout made with sake yeast by Naparbier in Pamplona, Spain. It’s a viscous, pitch-black beer that tastes of licorice and plum — complex and delicious. Such unlikely finds are the reason why every beer — and every beer bar — deserves a chance.

As people chat, laugh and drink around me, I mull my beer and the neighborhood in which I’m drinking it. Each of Koenji’s many beer bars takes a particular approach to their product, and in so doing, may leave something to be desired when viewed individually.

Taken together, however, they constitute one of Tokyo’s most diverse and exciting neighborhoods for beer, and serve as further proof of why the making and serving of this strange and storied beverage deserves to be called a craft.


Beer walk: Koenji

1. El Pato

2-22-10 Koenji-kita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo; 03-6795-7888; open weekdays 6:30 p.m.-2 a.m., weekends and hols. noon-3:30 p.m., 6 p.m.-2 a.m.; koushindoori.com/shop/el-pato

2. Koenji Bakushu Kobo

2-24-8 Koenji-Kita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo; 03-5373-5301; open weekdays 5-11 p.m., weekends and hols. 3-9 p.m.; beerkobo.web.fc2.com

2-3-1 Koenji-Kita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo; 03-5356-9647; open Mon.-Fri. 5 p.m.-1 a.m., Sat. 3 p.m.-1 a.m., closed Sun.; facebook.com/pg/BeerEngine/about/?tab=overview

4. Craft Beer Market Koenji

2-22-6 Koenji-Kita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo; 03-5356-7982; weekdays noon-2:30 p.m. and 4-11:30 p.m., weekends and hols. 12-4 p.m. and 4-11:30 p.m.; craftbeermarket.jp/store_koenji.html