In Search of Jibiiru
For the English-speaking tourist, trying to track down microbrews in Japan can produce headaches worse than any hangover has ever caused. The obvious language barrier is compounded by the sometimes confusing system of assigning addresses in a country where most streets have no name. What’s more, although many people have heard of jibiiru, as microbrews are known here, few can tell you where to find it.
If you find yourself in Tokyo, you’re in luck. The capital’s Ryogoku district, near the heart of its historic shitamachi downtown and a fairly uncomplicated train ride from Tokyo Station, is home to Popeye, the only beer bar in Japan to regularly offer a selection of draft microbrews from around the country. Proprietor Tatsuo Aoki and his staff are devoted beer fans, and they’ll find a way to let you know what’s hot and what’s not, even if you don’t speak a word of Japanese. The beers dispensed from the bar’s dozen or so taps rotate regularly, so there’s always something new to try. Following a visit to the highly recommended Edo-Tokyo Museum or an afternoon at the Kokugikan sumo area, there’s no place like Popeye.
Also in the vicinity is Beer Station Ryogoku, a brewpub operated by the New Tokyo restaurant chain. A short taxi ride away is the Azumabashi headquarters of Asahi Breweries and a brewpub that it operates in an annex. Like many of this country’s brewpubs, the Sumida River Brewing Co. focuses on two styles year-round and offers a rotating seasonal. Unlike many other establishments, this one changes the seasonals in fairly rapid succession.
What many urban brewpubs do have in common is their location. Most are a little off the beaten path, due in part to the price of land.
Somewhat closer to the business districts of central Tokyo is the T. Y. Harbor brewpub in the city’s Shinagawa district. The brainchild of the Terrada family, T. Y. Harbor is unabashedly the most American of this country’s brewpubs, and it features a menu of California cuisine designed by chef David Chiddo.
By Foot, Train and Auto
Accessing some of the other brewpubs in and around Tokyo⎯or other major cities, for that matter⎯requires a bit of planning. Maps can be deceiving, so be sure to confirm that your destination is indeed within walking distance of the nearest train station. In some cases, the only way you’ll get to the brewpub of your choice will be to fork over the equivalent of 20 bucks or more for taxi fare, which is a very sobering thought indeed. What’s even more sobering is that it’s always easier to catch a cab from the station to your destination than vice versa. So if you’re venturing out of town, make sure someone in your party understands the lingo.
English, on the other hand, will suffice at Beer Inn Mugishutei in Sapporo, where proprietor⎯and California native⎯Phred Kaufman is now celebrating 20 years in Japan’s bar business. Although the focus here is on beers from around the world, Kaufman imports a number of beers from Oregon’s Rogue Brewery: Some are Rogue products that have been relabeled under Kaufman’s Ezo brand name, while others, including a buckwheat, or soba, beer are brewed especially for this market. A few are available on draft.
In major cities elsewhere in the country, it shouldn’t prove too difficult to locate a Chimney restaurant serving beers from Gotemba Kohgen, one of this country’s larger micros. Similarly, beers from Ginga Kogen are often readily available at convenience stores and at affiliated beer-themed restaurants.
At the retail level, the search can be hit or miss. Many liquor shops have no interest in microbrews because they are often expensive and hard to market. More than once, this writer has been the willing recipient of bottle after bottle of free beer, simply because the proprietor couldn’t sell it and thought it was taking up too much shelf space.
Take Plenty of Cash
That said, it should be noted that beer drinking in Japan⎯where alcoholic beverages are taxed by volume, not by percentage of alcohol⎯is not for the faint of wallet. Bills add up quickly, and at many establishments, the custom is to pay your bill⎯in cash⎯at the end of the evening.
If you’re simply looking to grab a few bottles to take home to family and friends, you may well find yourself in luck. Many breweries have limited bottling operations to satisfy the thirst of the country’s beer tourists. Occasionally, you might even find microbrews at train station kiosks catering to the needs of travelers who feel obliged to buy souvenirs for the folks back home.
Failing that, microbrew fans should seek out major department stores, which nearly always have one or two floors devoted to food and beverages. Selections vary greatly, but some regularly feature extensive selections of imported and domestic specialty beers. Another option for those staying in hotels catering to international visitors is to inquire about ongoing promotions highlighting certain cuisines or countries. For those who willing to look, thereÕs a brew for you in Japan. It just takes a bit of patience.
Sumida-ku, Tokyo 130-0026
tel. (03) 3633-2120
Sumida River Brewing Co.
tel. (03) 5608-3831
2-1-3- Higashi Shinagawa
Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo 140-0002
tel. (03) 5479-4555
Beer Inn Mugishutei
Onda Bldg. B1
Minami 9-jo, Nishi 5-chome
Chuo-ku , Sapporo 064-0809
Finally, here is a short list of beer-related websites. (E) denotes an English-language site.
Ginga Kogen: www.ginga-beer.co.jp
Nasu Kogen Beer: www.nasukohgenbeer.co.jp
Otaru Beer: www.otarubeer.com (E)
Popeye brewpub: www.lares.dti.ne.jp/~ppy/index2.htm
Yo-Ho Brewing Co.: www.rakuten.co.jp/yonayona
Baltimore native Wayne Gabel, entertainment editor of the Mainichi Daily News, a national English-language daily based in Tokyo, also writes a regular beer column called "Foaming at the Mouth" (www.mainichi.co.jp/english/food). An eight-year resident of Japan, he remembers pining for good beer in the days before that country's microbrewing revolution. Now, he's a much happier man.