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Jan 9, 2014 10:59 AM

Craft beer bars in Tokyo

Starting what I hope can be a running thread on the craft beer bar scene in Tokyo.

So this initial list is brief. But two things I like to angle for as a visitor, are places that are open during the day so one can pop in for a half pint or two or such AND places that offer the local Japanese crafts. Here are some thoughts on the ones I’ve been to last few years:

Popeye (Ryogoku)-
Perhaps the mothership of craft beer in Japan and maybe Asia in terms of offerings. 70 taps. About 2/3 seem to be local. Even the non-Japanese stuff, beyond a few commonly found Stone and Rogue brews, is interesting. They open at 5pm. Time your visit to the Edo Museum appropriately if you fancy a post-historic quaff.

Craftheads (Shibuya)-
Location is kind of buried in the hill up beyond Seibu. I’ve only been here once a few years ago. Menu was about half American crafts. If I were residing in Tokyo, I’d be more into this place to drink stuff from home. As a visitor, maybe not necessarily a destination. 5pm on weekdays but 3pm on weekends.

Naka Meguro Taproom-
This is one of several places from Baird Beer, a nice craft brewer started by an American chap several years ago. Sort of a standard brewer’s taproom format with a full menu of their category offerings and then a few specialty or one-off brews. They usually have cask stuff as well. Sample flights are encouraged. Good beer. My only gripe is the square, bright, wooden rather antiseptic layout of this location. It’s literally a tapROOM. Also, not sure if they started table service or not. The few times I went, you had to order at the counter. Location is in the office building next to Naka Meguro Station (god, I remember when they built that thing). 5pm on weekdays. Noon on weekends. Perhaps worth a pre-game stop for a meal in the hood or a post meal drink. Not sure it’s worth a detour for tourists otherwise.

Harajuku Taproom-
I prefer this Harajuku location of Baird’s. Evade the hordes and the smell of crepes right off of busy Takeshita-dori. Beer format is the same, but the place is more of a (fun) yakitori bar set-up and they provide table service. Same hours as above. Worth a pop-in if you are sightseeing on a weekend in Harajuku/ Omotesando.

Watering Hole (Yoyogi/ Shinjuku)-
Excellent joint with good selection of local stuff and a few foreign brews. Great tap system they have set up. Address is probably a Yoyogi one and technically it’s closer to Yoyogi Station, but it’s not a far walk from Shinjuku, past Takashimaya, on Meiji. Would it be ideal if this were in the center of action near the East Exit or even Kabukicho? Sure. But it’s not much of a detour. And it’s open from 3pm everyday. Worth the walking detour if you want good beer.

BarBar (Tokyo Station)-
I actually think Tokyo Station is a legitimate tourist destination in itself these days. The beautiful renovation of both the exterior and the Marunouchi halls, as well as all the shopping, food, and dining options are worth a perusal. I tend to use Shinagawa as my Shinkansen port of departure these days, but if you are leaving from Tokyo St. it’s worth getting there early to check things out. BarBar is a little Japanese craft beer place on the Yaesu side, inside the gates, closest to probably the north exit. Interior has a standing commuter bar feel, but there is a cool S-shaped wooden table in the middle of the room and counter seating. A busy one-man cooking operation. Modest selection of both tap and bottled Japanese craft beer and some foreign big brewer stuff. BarBar is open from 11am everyday and I think closes at 10pm.

Ushitora (Shimo-kitazawa)-
Saved my favorite for last. Great selection of Japanese crafts. The set-up is interesting. There is a main pub with a counter and tables. Then there is a smaller little standing bar annex with nothing more than one raggedy table in the middle. I don’t think there is even a stool to sit…. They are in the same building but separated by another establishment between them. The list of beers in the pub and the annex is about 15 each and there is no overlap. They also usually have one really good craft sake on draft… I like the informality and inevitable conversational qualities of the annex, which has a little bit of a downtown Showa feel to it. Menu is more Japanese tsumami or skewers. It’s also open from 1pm on weekends (though sometimes it’s been open earlier), so it’s great for a pop-in.….Anyway, for evenings the pub is nice to sit in. Has both a friendly neighborhood vibe but also a crosstown destination type clientele. You have to pay as you go also. No tab. This is the only place among this list I’ve really eaten food at. Dishes are cheap and reasonably interesting and not so unhealthy (avocado sashimi is a popular item). Pub opens from 5pm…The Ushitora guys are tight with the excellent Montreal-based brewpub brewer Dieu du Ciel and are either doing collabs or getting support on brewing under Ushitora label…Location can be tricky the first time. It’s at the end of the lane to the right the Ozeki Supermarket, on the second floor. Not a lot of signage.

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  1. Harajuku Taproom is our local, but Nakameguro Taproom has become much more lively recently, with table service, and with New Haven style pizza that on a good day is very good, a vast improvement over the previous food situation. There are a couple of new places that have opened recently but I haven't had the time to try - Devilcraft, Beer Craft Market, I think one or two more.

    Also, Kura Kura has about 10 Japanese craft beers on tap, and is not a bad option if you're in that part of town with surprisingly good toriwasa and okay sausages, and there's Goodbeer Faucets (I'm not a big fan of the atmosphere, but good selection), and the little Brimmer Beer Box (their brews are just too much, I think).

    1. Great idea for a topic! There's been an explosion of new craft-beer bars in the past 18 months, and it can be difficult keeping track of all the new openings.

      I'll just mention a few that aren't on your list, although I'm also a fan of Ushi-Tora, Craftheads and Watering Hole.

      DevilCraft, with branches in Kanda and Hamamatsucho, offers a well-chosen lineup of around twenty craft beers, an even mix between US and Japanese craft beers (which is a common pattern these days). They also make excellent deep-dish pizza.

      The comically narrow Dry Dock in Shimbashi offers a lot of high-end US imports that I've never seen elsewhere in town, although their prices tend to be a bit higher than average.

      Craft Beer Market, currently with three branches (Awajicho, Uchisaiwaicho, Jimbocho) gets high marks for their food and their below-average prices, with a selection of maybe 20 beers on tap, again a mix of Japanese and US. Unfortunately they're closed on weekends.

      BBQ restaurant Smokehouse in Harajuku has twelve taps, with six devoted to TY Harbor beers (which have gotten much better over the years, and are now consistently pretty good) and six guest beers from breweries like Bear Republic and Stone.

      The Hangover in Nakano-Sakaue deserves mention for their late-night hours (open until 5am) and their selection, which includes some hard-to-find bottled beers to supplement their draft-beer selection. They also do excellent Buffalo wings (the owner is actually from Buffalo, I believe).

      Vivo! Beer + Dining Bar in Ikebukuro also has a pretty serious selection, again a mix of US + Japanese micros. Also in Ikebukuro, Beer Saurus is notable for their spacious quarters, their budget-friendly happy hour (6-8pm) and their late-night hours (until 3am).

      5 Replies
      1. re: Robb S

        Apparently there have been some changes at The Hangover. I'm not sure what the story is as I've only heard second-hand, but the American part-owner/manager has left/been forced out of the business, so the vibe and food/beer selection may change a bit. I definitely liked the atmosphere and music better when he was there, so it's pretty crappy news.

        1. re: Robb S

          Will be back in TK for a couple weeks in June, for the 1st visit of 2015 - have been tasked to put cash behind the bar at Craft Beer Market Awajicho, the new local for most of my coworkers in OFC. Read the above and the info. Looks like they have a few more locations now which is good. Other than the chicken any specific food req's or any beer req's - I enjoy different beers and ciders regularly but this is not my area...

          1. re: kamiosaki

            If they have the duck a l'orange it's probably worth a try. Keep in mind that it's better-than-average bar food, not haute cuisine.

            For beer recommendations, you can try posting here the day you go, otherwise there's no way to guess what they'll have on tap.

            1. re: Robb S

              Understood, thanks. I'll see what they have that day and if time permits during the day will repost.

              1. re: kamiosaki

                Due to our party's size we ended up at one of the ones in Jimbocho (I am told there are two). Nice outside seating area, we closed the place on one of the cooler days. Food items included sausage platters, smoked salmon, pasta with mushrooms, and some braised fish. Drank weissbier most of the night. They also had some sort of semi-homemade cassis-type "cider" that was a disappointment.

        2. Nice list, just a couple of comments...

          Craftheads nowadays offers a lot of Japanese brews, some of which are very good.

          Watering Hole is closer to Yoyogi station than Shinjuku, but the address is Sendagaya. (Takashimaya also has a Sendagaya address, and I think part of Shinjuku station is actually in Sendagaya.) Personally I think the relatively quiet location is much more suitable than someplace like Kabukicho; it's nice to be able to stumble out of there without immediately dealing with crowds or touts.

          Tokyo Station is indeed well worth exploring in its own right; there's a nice little stand-up beer and wine bar inside the gates just above NeX tracks called Le Collier, which also has a retail section where you can also buy Japanese craft beers to take on the Shinkansen (or take home if you're not traveling). BarBar however is outside the gates, in the JR-managed Kurobei Yokocho complex on the Yaesu side. Personally it's my least favorite of the four or five craft-beer bars on the Yaesu side, but they do have a convenient location and convenient hours.

          1 Reply
          1. re: Robb S

            One thing about Watering Hole - they seem to have a lot of special events (not sure if they're beer classes, or what) that I'm sure they announce on twitter or Facebook, but check before you go or you'll find it closed. Their actual last order is also substantially earlier than officially listed (not unusual in Tokyo).

          2. Great report, Silverjay.
            Let me add that I have been to Faucets in Shibuya, near the entrance to Bunkamura, several times and like it. On weekdays, happy hour is until 8 pm, and there is 200 yen off pints. One time they had Brimmer Brewing (great session beers) brown ale for 700 yen a pint, which became 500 yen during happy hour.

            1. You're only missing one thing in my experience, which is Ant 'n' Bee in Roppongi. Just south of the crossing, west side, basement. It's better than several on the list, with very good food to boot.

              Ushitora is probably my other favorite. You're right about Craftheads - the one time I went, I think they had 10 different beers from Stone on tap, which is pretty amazing anywhere but much less so if you live in America and Stone is in every store.

              4 Replies
              1. re: jem589

                There are actually a lot of places that haven't been mentioned here yet. Swanlake Edo Pub in Kyobashi has around 30 Japanese beers, but they're kind of expensive, except for their own Swanlake beers. Nearby in Kyobashi/Yaesu are Towers (a standing bar), Ibrew (with a few seats, and very good prices and decent food) and Bacchus (Japanese beers and one hand-pumped ale in a smoky basement).

                Crafthands in Azabu-Juban carries 13 Japanese beers on tap. There are smaller selections (4-8 taps) at small local spots like Maltan (Kanda), Bamboo (Shinjuku 1-chome), Marumugi (Arakicho), Lodi (Nakano Sakaue), Hatos Bar (Naka-Meguro), Nepalese restaurant Himalaya Table (Kanda), and gourmet hot dog stand San Francisco Peaks (Harajuku).

                Out on the Chuo line are Bicke and Holic in Kichijoji, and two brewpubs - Asagaya Bakushu Dojo and Koenji Bakushu Kobo.

                1. re: Robb S

                  In Asagaya I'd add Stone---he always has a number of good beers on tap, there's an amazing single malt selection, and the food's really good. Good atmosphere to boot.

                  1. re: Robb S

                    Not just San Francisco Peaks (which oddly bills itself California cuisine, not Arizona cuisine :snicker:), but The Great Burger and its various offshoots usually have 6-8 Japanese craft beers on tap.

                    1. re: Robb S

                      PCM at the Tokia Building stocks pretty much for full Swan Lake line up these days. No cover charge, 900 yen for a 510ml glass. Cheaper than Swan Lakes own pub and only 5-10 minutes walk away.