Craft Beer Market, Tokyo's artisan ale haven

Craft Beer Market, Tokyo's artisan ale haven

Good brews (and great food) are busting out all over, nowhere better than at this near-perfect drinking hole
Craft Beer Market, Tokyo
Craft Beer Market, where man comes to commune with his real ale of choice.

Could 2012 be the year craft beer finally comes of age in Japan?

With more and more independent brewers winning their licenses, firing up production lines and turning out a steady stream of distinctive weizens, porters, stouts and IPAs, it certainly looks that way.

For diehard enthusiasts, this is great news indeed. But the change runs deeper still.

The real sign that artisan ales are starting to make a proper mark is the emergence of a new generation of bars and restaurants serving them.

None does it better than Tokyo’s Craft Beer Market.

New audience

Craft Beer Market, TokyoCraft Beer Market Jinbocho manager, Kenzo Kobayashi.The approach is obvious but still radical.

Rather than preaching to the choir -- catering to drinkers who already know and love the extra flavor, character and punch delivered by those non-mainstream brews -- why not try to draw in people who have never heard of or tasted them before?

Craft Beer Market does this by tearing up the old template.

It's not a pub: you don't line up to order, prop up the bar or pay on the nail each time you order.

Nor is it exclusive. The focus is on beers from smaller operations, with the lineup changing constantly and spanning virtually the whole of Japan.

But, three of the 30 taps are reserved for standard, mass-market lagers from the major Japanese brewers.

In other words, the kind of suds that hard-core real-ale aficionados like to call "the enemy."

Undercutting the competition

Craft Beer Market, TokyoAll brews sell for a very reasonable ¥780 per U.S. pint.For most people, though, the biggest attraction is the prices. With a couple of exceptions, everything costs the same -- ¥480 (US$6) for a glass (250 milliliters), or ¥780 per U.S. pint (473 milliliters).

It's a policy that puts everyone at ease. It also undercuts just about every pub in town offering the selfsame brews.

Unsurprisingly, this has proved massively popular.

Since the moment the first Craft Beer Market opened last year in a backstreet at the Toranamon end of Shinbashi, virtually every night of the week it has been standing room only -- and then often only out on the sidewalk.

It was only a matter of time before there was a spin-off.

Thankfully, that came sooner rather than later with the second Craft Beer Market opening in Jinbocho at the beginning of the year.

In many ways it is even better than the original.

It's certainly just as busy, but the demographic is rather less weighted toward salarymen.

Interior, designed

From the outside, the sliding doors of metal and glass across the whole of the front give it a bright, sleek look -- these are opened wide in the summer months. But the layout and friendly feel are much the same as at the original.

There are counters along three sides, rough-hewn timber tables and bar stools wedged in tightly, high ceilings with retro lamps casting plenty of light and blackboards on the walls showing the specials of the day and the provenance of the beers.

The beer menu is identical -- all 30 brews served on draft and covering the full gamut of types, from light lagers and mild, easy-drinking session ales through intense, hop-driven IPAs and sharply citric fruit beers.

The exact lineup will vary almost daily as casks get rotated in and out, and there are often lesser-known names to discover among ever-reliable offerings from Iwatekura, Shiga Kogen, Yoho and Baird.

Where Craft Beer Market Jinbocho really breaks new ground is with its food.

Don’t-miss eats

Craft Beer Market, TokyoRoast potato and onion, straight from the rotisserie.Its tiny kitchen turns out a remarkably extensive menu. Pâté de campagne; bruschetta topped with mounds of fresh tomato; ratatouille; pasta, grilled lamb; chawan-mushi.

This is altogether a higher level than standard pub grub.

If you just want to nibble on nuts, pizza, sausages or fries, no problem.

The house specialty is a simple roast chicken (hint: don’t overlook the rotisserie-baked potatoes and onions).

Everything is delivered with a touch of sophistication -- even something as basic as potato salad.

The spuds are cooked just right, then diced and mixed with shreds of cured ham and black olive.

Formed into a thick patty, it is garnished with shreds of deep-fried onion and garlic and decorated with a swoosh of red pimiento paste and a punctuation mark of black tapenade.

More on CNNGo: Old-fashioned eats: Japan's soul food

Even more impressive is the marinated mackerel.

Lightly seared on the skin but still sashimi-rare inside, the thick slices are scattered with fresh dill and red peppercorns, and presented on a swirl of drizzled balsamico.

And when you taste the roast Hokkaido duck with sauce à l’orange, you realize the chefs have been through cooking school and really know their oignons.

Expert opinion

Craft Beer Market, TokyoMarinated mackerel -- lightly seared on the skin but still sashimi-rare inside.So what do you drink with food of this quality?

Ask manager Kenzo Kobayashi or one of his helpful young staff and he’ll probably direct you to one of the Belgian-type saison beers, or perhaps the West Shinbashi Ale, an easy-drinking session beer custom-brewed by Baird in Shizuoka.

There’s only one way to finish the evening, though: one of the rich, aromatic barley wines, served in snifters to be sipped not quaffed in elegant tulip wine glasses. It’s that sort of place.

A couple of notes: Craft Beer Market Jinbocho is just as busy in the evening as the Toranomon branch.

Do not expect to walk in and get a table, or even standing space, without a reservation.

Even more important: neither branch is open at weekends. Ask Kobayashi why and he’s likely to reply, “That’s when we go out drinking.”

Craft Beer Market Jinbocho, 2-11-15 Kanda-Jinbocho, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; +81 (0) 3 6272 5652; no website.

Open Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m (last order) and 5 p.m.-11 p.m. (last order); closed weekends and holidays.

Craft Beer Market Toranomon, 1-23-3 Nishi-Shinbashi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; +81 (0) 3 6206 1603; no website.

Open Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m (last order) and 5 p.m.-11 p.m. (last order); closed weekends and holidays.

More on CNNGo: Don't break the bank: Japan's superb cheap eats

Robbie Swinnerton has been living, eating and writing about food in Tokyo for more than 30 years ...

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