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Beer And Loathing At The Japan Beer Festival In Tokyo
By Bryan Harrell

Craft-beer popularity continues its strong and steady growth in Japan, but it seems that the organizers of Japan’s largest beer event, the Japan Beer Festival, a weekend event held in Tokyo, are finding it increasingly difficult to manage the crowds. This year’s event was the most crowded ever, and for the first half of the first day, uncomfortably so.

Blame can be placed first on the over-selling of tickets, which were good for either day, making it difficult to balance the numbers on Saturday and Sunday. This year’s event was held May 6–7, which happened to be at the end of Japan’s “Golden Week” of successive holidays. As such, the majority of beer enthusiasts chose to attend Saturday, with several hundred lining up in front of the Yebisu Garden Place venue hours before the 2 p.m. opening.

Although there was apparent efficiency in the serving systems, which were manned by well-trained volunteer servers, they were overwhelmed by the number of visitors. There were long lines in front of most of the popular selections, with people waiting as long as 20 minutes for a 2-ounce sample of beer. The food lines were worse, with some people waiting as long as an hour.

Japanese craft beer has really come of age in the last three years, as quality has improved markedly.

I arrived an hour after opening time on Saturday, and though a few of my friends left in disgust (I encouraged them to lodge complaints upon leaving), I stuck it out, and by around 4:30 p.m. the serving lines were bearable, with some stations having no lines at all. This was little consolation in light of the 6 p.m. “last call” after having paid the equivalent of $32 for an advance ticket.

After the festival, Ryouji Oda, representative of the JCBA, organizer of the event, told me by phone that attendance for the two days was 5,000 people: 2,800 on Saturday and 2,200 on Sunday. A phone call to the office of the venue revealed that the hall’s standing capacity is 1,500, according to fire department regulations. As you can imagine, sparks were flying after the event.

In response, a number of small breweries, together with Tatsuo Aoki and Toshiyuki Ishii of Beer Club Popeye in Tokyo, have created a new organization, Brewers Club, which will hold the Nippon Craft Beer Festival 2006 on September 17. Only 700 tickets will be sold for the event, which is billed as “the festival that brewers are bestowing on beer fans.”

Even if you won’t be in Japan for the upcoming Nippon Craft Beer Festival 2006, there are a number of great places in Tokyo and Osaka to grab a great pint. Here are some of my recommendations. Be sure to call first to confirm operating hours. Also, if a hotel concierge is at your disposal, get directions and a map.

Beer Club Popeye: This is simply the best place in the universe for Japanese craft beer, which has really come of age in the last three years, as quality has improved markedly. There are 40 taps, three hand-pumps and an array of bottled beer. Thanks to the efforts of Phred Kaufman, Beer Club Popeye also proudly serves Hair of the Dog and Rogue beers. Near Ryogoku Station in Tokyo; phone 03-3633-2120; 40beersontap.com.

The Aldgate: This English-style pub added microbrew early last year and now has some 15 taps and counting. Located in the lively “Center Gai” area of the Shibuya district; phone 03-3462-2983; the-aldgate.com.

Bois Cereste: Another “best,” this is easily the best Belgian beer spot in Japan, if not Asia. Owner Masaharu Yamada is a jazz pianist who once lived in Brussels, and upon returning to Japan, he had to open a place featuring Belgium’s best. Classy and cozy, this place is a jewel. Near Akasaka Station in Tokyo at 2-13-21 Akasaka B1; phone 03-3588-6292.

Antwerp Central: Adjacent to Tokyo Station, it seems as though this large (for Japan) beer café was airlifted directly from Belgium. Most cities in the U.S. don’t have anything like this. Adjacent to Tokyo Station at Tokyo Building, Tokia B1; phone 03-5288-7370; belgianbeercafe.jp.

Beer Belly: Most of Japan’s best microbrews are served here. Near Higo-bashi subway station at 1-1-30 Tosa-bori; phone 06-6441-0717.

Beer & Bear: Funky and ramshackle, this place has an interesting mix of Asian food and all manner of ales. Near Shinsai-bashi and Honmachi subway stations at 3-4-9 Hakuro-cho; phone 06-6241-0409.

Grand Dolphins: Impressive selection of Belgian beers. Near Shinsai-bashi subway station at 1-8-1 Higashi Shinsai-bashi; phone 06-6244-0168.

Masamichi: The destination for Osaka’s hard-core Belgian beer fans. Near JR Tamatsukuri Station at 1-1-15 Higashi-Obase, Higashinari-ku, Osaka; phone 06-6977-4466.

Bryan Harrell is a professional writer from California who has lived in Tokyo since 1977. He spends his summers in San Francisco, satisfying his thirst for good West Coast craft beer. He can be contacted at bryanharrell@yahoo.com.


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