Beer Trippin’ – Tokyo, Japan
Japan is well known for its technology, culture, and of course, food. It’s not necessarily the first place you’d think of “beer”, but as one of the most highly modernized countries, of course, there are plenty of great beer options. This article will focus on some of the best breweries and beer bars in Tokyo – easily navigated by train, no location in the sprawling city is ever too far. This list is not exhaustive (a city like Tokyo is far too large to cover in one article); instead I will highlight the places that I made an effort to visit on my recent trip to Japan.
If you’re familiar with Japan, you’ll know that they love their tiny establishments. Opening in 2020 across the street from Gakushuin University (the drinking age is 20!), this brewery has seating for about 10 people in the front of the house. Through a window, you can see the brewing equipment, or you can face outwards as the front wall is a sliding door itself. And the beer? Some of the best IPAs you’ll find in all of Japan, with a couple of pilsners and porters to round out the tap list. The first stop on our visit to the Toshima ward, secretly a hotspot for breweries in the city.
Tokyo Aleworks has two locations, I personally visited the one in Yurakucho, connected to Yurakucho Train Station itself. Just one stop south of Tokyo Station, this brewery is split into a quick-serve counter and a more traditional pub – so you can choose to grab your beer to go or hang for a while. If you do hang out, there are some arcade games to play, traditional pub food like burgers, wings, and pizza, and of course a varied selection of beer styles. This is a great brewery to visit if you’re looking for something familiar to Americans, but with a Japanese twist!
Alright, time to go off the beaten path. Anyone can google search “breweries”, but if you don’t speak Japanese you’re likely to overlook some of the best local beer bars. Take a train to Takadanobaba station and then it’s a short walk to Takadanobaba Beer Shokudo; with signage/menu/beer list only in kanji, you’ll want to get out your translation app to order some of the best craft beers you’ll find in Japan, including both local and international (US and Europe) selections. A common custom in Japan is an “otoshi” or a compulsory appetizer – in place of a seating charge. In this case, I was given a tasty poached egg yolk with my fruited sour from West Coast Brewery, one of the best breweries in Japan (located in Shizuoka – outside the Tokyo area). The bartender asked me how on earth I found them, as they don’t get a lot of non-locals, and I told him I did my research!
They serve kangaroo meat, let’s just get that out of the way first. Now whether or not you want to try some deep-fried kangaroo skewers (don’t worry, they have a full menu of other items as well), you can visit this brewery right at the intersection of Toshima, Bunkyo, and Shinjuku wards. Kanpai! Brewing is upstairs and not open to the public (you can easily see it through the window), but that’s not a problem because drafts are available at the ground-floor brewpub Granzoo. I was served an otoshi of macadamia nuts and a nutcracker so I could burn off a few of the beer calories, and I tried a few of Kanpai!’s brews, of which they make a variety of styles. And of course a kangaroo skewer.
As far as non-brewing craft beer bars go, there are a few that you’ll likely find without too much issue. Antenna America is one of them, BrewDog, Mikkeller, Oslo, and Omnipollo have spots as well, but I was looking for Japanese beer and these places specialize in international selections so I chose not to visit them. Instead, I went to the largest chain that focuses on local beer, and that’s IBREW. There are four locations, and I personally visited the spot in Ebisu which was two floors below ground level through a nondescript entrance – I wasn’t sure it was the right place until I saw the sign on their door downstairs. And this place takes craft beer seriously; they offer 47 taps (most of which are from Japan), post their tap lists to their website daily, and have flight boards of 3, 5, and 10 tasters. They even offer an all-you-can-drink option that comes with food, although that may get a bit pricey.
Dubbed “Smoke Beer Factory”, Namachan Brewing wins the prize for the most stylish brewery that I visited. Every beer at this spot in Otsuka is presented with a hand-painted canvas of their mascot and art representing the beer (to look at, not to keep). The beers used smoked malts, and the food menu focuses on smoked meats, cheeses, and various other items. It’s not a very large brewery, but it’s a popular one – every seat was taken when I arrived, but I was able to get a spot at the bar after a few minutes. In addition to their main brewery location, they’ve expanded to two other brewpubs nearby, as well as a market for their food items.
We have another small chain here, but this one’s a bit different, consisting of three stores: Tap & Tumbler, Tap & Growler, and Tap & Crowler. Growler and Crowler are traditional brewpubs (with strong beer lists), but I personally visited Tumbler which is their newest location. It’s a pour-your-own beer bar – like Off the Wall in Honolulu (and Oz. Tap House in Austin!), and you’re free to try as much or as little of each of their 15 taps as you’d like. Be sure to take a close look at their coasters and growlers, which have funky beer-themed representations of Alice in Wonderland characters.
Side story – the TV in the bar just happened the be playing the Austin episode of a food show (I believe it was “The Chef Show” episode 7 or 8). I had a fun conversation with the staff through google translate about how I had just flown in from Austin. One of the bartenders asked me if BBQ tacos were a thing, and I explained that while you can get BBQ tacos, generally they’re two separate cuisines. In retrospect, I should have mentioned the BBQ Ramen which would really have blown their minds.
More places to check out
Naturally, beer is only one of many reasons to visit Japan. I managed to find time to visit 4 breweries and a number of taprooms (plus a few more outside of Tokyo, but that’s for another time). Of course, I also grabbed a Sapporo in Omoide Yokochō and a Kirin in Golden Gai, but even still there were a number of places on my list that I wasn’t able to make it to. If you get a chance to visit Tokyo, maybe you can check them out! And so, here are another 15 places I believe are worth visiting:
- Snark Liquidworks
- Cranc Brewing
- Let’s Beer Works
- Underground Craft Beer
- Titans Craft Beer Taproom & Bottle Shop
- Watering Hole
- Ćider Shack
- Beer Lupulin
- Ladybirds Bottle Shop Tsukiji
- Hitachino Brewing (Several Locations)
- DevilCraft (Several Locations)
- Ise Kadoya Craft Beer
- Craft Beer Scissors
- Hop-Scotch Craft Beer & Whiskey