Category Archives: Beer Travels

Japanese Craft Biru!

June 2012

Craft beer from Japan in the US?  If you are extremely lucky in some parts of this country, you are able to find the excellent and unusual beer selections from Kiuchi brewery under the name Hitachino Nest.  The adorable owl crest is one of the only craft beers exported to urban centers of the US, but there are many, many other craft breweries in Japan that never make it here at all.   As a craft beer fan living in New York, I find it mystifying annoying that most of the Japanese restaurants here still carry the ubiquitous blandly perfected lagers from Kirin or Sapporo, even though other, far superior options are readily available from local beer distributors.  A real shame.

So it was with palpably visible excitement that I mapped out some Tokyo beer lover’s destinations as my fiance and I planned a short trip to Japan.  We knew that only three days in Tokyo would be barely adequate to see the city, let alone really delve into Japanese culture. Luckily we had Shinji Nohara as our guide to the city, a knowledgeable Tokyo native who helped us jump right in. He also just happened to be a big craft beer fan!

With just a few days to see everything (some favorite non-beer spots: Koishikawa Korakuen Garden for a quiet contemplative stroll, Tokyo Hands – the “everything store”- they are not kidding!, the Tsukiji Fish Market – amazing sushi culture!, and the Sensoji Temple-the largest temple in Tokyo) we didn’t have time to go out of the city and visit a Japanese brewery, but there were dozens of excellent bars in the city serving a wide range of craft Japanese beer on draft.  More on this below!

Lots of options for drinking on the street!

Tokyo is a massive city, 30+ million inhabitants and counting, and can be a little overwhelming even for seasoned city slickers.  The public transportation system is fantastic and while complicated at first, makes getting to most locations in the city very easy.  Later at night, taxis are always an option too, but you will pay dearly for the convenience (a late night 15-20 minute ride set us back about $15USD). Long days spent shopping and sightseeing gave us a thirst that could just not be quenched by vending machine beer, although it was readily available!

So where to find amazing beer if your time in Tokyo is limited?  I would highly recommend planning pub visits by neighborhood as distances on the metro can be quite long given the size of the city.  We were lucky enough to be staying the Shibuya neighborhood, close to Roppongi meaning there were lots of great options available.  An indispensable resource both before and during the trip was the English  language website Beer in Japan.  Easily the best site for honest reviews, information and news on craft beer in Japan.  I wish there was as comprehensive and excellent a beer website for countries like Belgium or Germany….maybe one day!

beer labels from some of the many beers served at Ant n Bee
One regulator per beer – Japanese precision at its best!

On to the beer.  One of the first places we stopped was the relative new comer Ant n Bee a tiny pub downstairs from a larger, less exciting bar called “Abbots Choice”.  Opened in late November of 2011, Ant n Bee offers an all Japanese craft beer menu with 22 tap lines, small but interesting food menu and an extensive list of whiskey as well. The keg room is right next to the minuscule bar/food preparatory area and the first thing draft beer fans will notice is that every tap had its own regulator.  Draft beer geek heaven.  (After visiting a few bars in Tokyo, I discovered this is normal procedure!) Ant n Bee had great character, many interesting beers and delicious pubby food (we loved the fried octopus)!  Highly recommended, especially for smaller parties.

Ant n Bee   Address: B1F,  5-1-5,  Roppongi, Minato-ku. Tokyo  (Under Abbot’ s Choice)

Another place we went to that was the polar opposite to Ant n Bee was called Faucets, in the heart of the Shibuya shopping district maelstrom.  We tried to go to the highly recommend “British beer pub” the Aldgate a few blocks away, but they were closed for a private party.  Where Ant n Bee is cozy and intimate, Faucets is big and shiny with a slightly industrial feel.  Friendly staff and a great selection of beer 40 taps wide (the strong suits were Japanese Craft of course, and surprisingly California: Stone, Bear Republic and Ballast Point were all on draft) make it a good spot to escape the shopping mania outside.

Faucets Shibuya Tokyo Address: 1-29-1 CROSSROADSビル 2F Shoto, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Our only regret was that we did not make it to the famous Popeye Pub in Ryogoku (a solid hour plus subway ride from Shibuya with transfers necessary).  Popeye is supposedly the best beer bar in Tokyo if not in Japan!  On the list for next time.

A snapshot of the cask ale taps at Popeye – next time!


The best known and original wheat beer is hefeweizen, the wheat beer which was first produced in Germany since at least 700 B.C. . Using wheat as an ingredient in beer was the first exception made to the famous beer purity law,  the Rheinheitsgebot, in 1602 and that exception was made specifically so the nobility could continue to enjoy this style. This Bavarian style of wheat beer is pale and cloudy. It is bottled and served unfiltered so the yeast used during fermentation is still present. This special strain of yeast contributes banana and clove notes to the aroma and flavor of the beer. While many people insist on serving this style with a slice of lemon, the refreshingly sour acidity should be more than enough to quench ones thirst.

A world class Hefeweizen to try: Schneider Weisse


A Düsseldorf specialty, an Altbier is a German style brown ale, the “alt” literally translates to “old” in German, and traditionally Altbiers are conditioned for a longer than normal periods of time. Other sources note that “alt” is derived from the Latin word “altus,” which means “high” and refers to the rising yeast. Take your pick, but the extended conditioning mellows out the ale’s fruitiness and produces an exceptionally smooth and delicate brew. The color ranges from amber to dark brown, medium in carbonation with a great balance between malt and hops.  “Sticke” is a stronger version of an Altbier, thus a bit more malty and hoppy to boot.

A world class Altbier to try: Uerige Alt

Flanders Sour Red Ale

Flanders Sour Red Ales are traditional reddish brown colored beer of West Flanders, Belgium. While still popular as a table beer in Flanders today, they are a style of beer that many have never heard of.  Flanders red ale are infamous for their distinct sharp, fruity, sour and tart flavors which are created by special yeast strains. Very complex beers, they are produced under the age old tradition of long-term cask aging in oak, and the blending of young and old beers. Beginning with a selection of medium-dark malts, and just enough hops to add some aromatic complexity, the brew is first fermented using traditional, top-fermenting ale yeast. After brewing, the ale is aged for long periods in huge, old, oak casks, more reminiscent of those used in the wineries of old-world countries than of any other beer style. After an aging period of at least 18 months, the main portion of the beer is considered ripe, and it is then blended with a beer of the same recipe, but that has been aged for much less time. This process will add to the liveliness of the finished product, while allowing the amazing sweet and sour flavors that can only develop with extended aging to still shine through.


A world class Flanders Sour Red Ale to try: Rodenbach Grand Cru

Franconia: Unsung Destination for Real Beer Enthusiasts

Although Belgium would certainly top most people’s list of most interesting beer destination in Europe, the German beer loving region of Franconia (in northern Bavaria) provides stiff competition.

Currently there are over 300 breweries and brewpubs in the region, creating styles of beer not seen anywhere else in the world.  On a trip to Franconia in November of 2009, I experienced first hand this relatively unknown kingdom of artisanal beer culture.

Germany, and specifically Bavaria is famous for its beer.  Sadly, a lot of what gets transported to the United States is a heat damaged, dusty, pasteurized version of what is enjoyed there.  More importantly perhaps, its hard to gain an understanding of German beer culture without the proper setting; a cozy Gasthaus or tavern or a beer garden surrounded by oak trees filled with the happy energy of a beer loving culture.  Franconia leads the German regions for number of breweries per capita and per square kilometer, and the majority of the beer made in the area is for local consumption. There is really no better place to go for beer made locally for the locals!

Home not only to a stunning number of breweries, beer halls, beer gardens and beer guest houses (a recent German language guide listed 631 total), Franconia can also lay claim to having the widest array of beer styles in Germany, from the sublime cask conditioned Ungespundet Lager, to the robust, bacony Rauchbier, to the king of dark malty lagers, the Eisbock and many more in between.

Courtyard of the Bamberg Cathedral on a gray November day.

The city of Bamberg, nestled in the heart of Franconia is the capital of Franconian beer culture.  Home to nine breweries, and Weyermann Malt, the world’s leading producer of specialty beer malt, Bamberg literally lives and breathes beer.  Not that beer is the reason most tourists visit this city.  On the UNESCO world heritage site, Bamberg is a stunningly beautiful city with a massive Romanesque cathedral perched upon one of the seven hills that make up the town.

One might easily spend several blissful days touring the winding streets of the old city, peering in to the beautiful churches and wandering along the mossy banked waterways of the city without realizing they are in the heart of beer country.  Luckily or unluckily depending on how you look at it,  I was able to avoid the charms of the city and focus on the beer for two reasons:

#1  My trip fell in the middle of November and it was cold, wet and gray. (I would highly recommend a late spring or summer visit although the city will be swarming with tourists)

#2  I came armed with a guide an indispensable guide to Franconian beer culture, “The Beer Drinkers Guide to Bamberg”, by Fred Waltman, who also curates an online guide to Franconian beer culture.  Available online as a pdf for a nominal fee, I wouldn’t visit Bamberg without it.

Even if you were to somehow lose the guide however after a few too many pints of Schlenkerla, the people of Bamberg would be more than happy to give you tips on where to go and what to drink.  Speaking to the natives in German or English (no problem finding English speakers in Germany of course!) you will get to the heart of the Franconian culture and that wonderful feeling of gemütlichkeit.

Come try a nice smokey beer at Schlenkerla!

I visited probably a dozen more brew pubs than the average tourist interested in things non-beer might want to see, but my must-see favorites are listed below.

Brauereiaushank Schlenkerla  A trip to Bamberg would not be complete without visiting the most famous producer of Rauchbier, Aecht Schlenkerla.  Schlenkerla has been run by same family since 1877, although the tavern in the heart of the city has been serving beer 1405.  In their brewery just a few kilometers away Schlenkerla produces a several styles of smoked lager including their flagship beer a  Märzen. Enjoy a glass of the amber colored smokey stuff with some locally made liverwurst or an order of “beer cheese” and dark bread. Dominikanerstrasse 6, 96052 Bamberg, open daily

Mahr’s Bräu  Just a few doors down from Brauerei Keesmann is the cozy Mahr’s Gausthaus.  Built in 1670, it wooden benches, soft lighting and warm stove invite one to stay and chat with the old timers over their signature brew, an unfiltered lager simply called “U” (pronounced “ew”), short for Ungespundes Lager. Absolutely a must.  If you visit Bamberg in the right season, you should also sample their Helles Bock, which is deceptively smooth and delicious for over 6% abv. Wunderburg 10, 96050 Bamberg, open daily

Brauerei Keesmann I was particularly interested to try the beer from Brauerei Keesmann, as it is not available in the United States.  I arrived around lunch time and sat at one of the communal tables  next to several older gentleman and woman, who turned out to be Mrs. Keesmann!  She recommended their Pilsner, which was fantastic, especially with a hearty platter of traditional Franconian cold cuts and cheeses. Wunderburg 5, 96050 Bamberg, closed Sundays

Spezial Keller  Spezial is another brewery specializing in smoked beers, although they also make a wonderful Ungespundes Lager that is not smoked.  While their brewpub is cozy, dark and traditionally Franconian, I would recommend their beer “cellar”, which sits upon the top of a hill north of the old town, providing a beautiful outlook down onto the city.  The term beer cellar in Franconia might be confusing to tourists who picture a subterranean cave. Anywhere else in Germany, a Franconian beer cellar would be a beer garden, so picture trees, open air, sunlight and fresh beer. Oberer Stephansberg 47, 96049 Bamberg, closed Mondays

A beer focused trip to Bamberg would not be complete without hitting the open road (or bicycle path as it were) and visiting a Franconia Gasthaus or three.  There are literally dozens of small village breweries within easy biking distance of Bamberg all connected by immaculately maintained and sign-posted bicycle paths.

One place I found had particularly good beer was in the village of Buttenheim, just an hour south of Bamberg by bicycle.  Visit Löwenbräu (Marktstraβe 8, 96155 Buttenheim) for a taste of a traditional Franconian country guest house.  Fresh beer brewed literally next door, paired with hearty, rustic fare.

Enjoy fresh, country lagers at the cozy Lowenbrau tavern.

Piedmont: Magical Region of Food and Beer

Those of you from the San Francisco area might associate Piedmont with the East Bay, but this post is about a fantastic corner of north-western Italy called Piedmont, or “foot of the mountains”.  This is a region that anyone who loves food and drink simply must visit.

Piedmont is an incredible area, which once you have experienced it, you will compare all future dining experiences to this magical place.

It is home to some of the most serious red wine regions of Italy (Barolo and Barbaresco), yet it is also responsible for the light fizzy pop wine Moscato D’Asti.  Thanks to its marriage of French and Italian cuisine, you will find some of the most serious restaurants of Italy here, but you will also find extremely satisfying, unfussy country fare.  Its a region that boasts some of the most beautiful mountainous regions of Italy as well as gritty, industrial cities such as the capital,  Turin.  Piedmont is also home to the most craft breweries per capita than any state in Italy, including the most widely distributed and perhaps best recognized Italian craft beer: Birra Baladin.

On a trip to

While one could easily spend a trip to Piedmont just visiting breweries, you would be sorely missing out.