Craftheads: Sublime suds in Shibuya

Craftheads: Sublime suds in Shibuya

The founder of Tokyo's premier craft beer bar gives us his take on the good beer movement and the evils of happoshu
Koji takes pride in his extensive collection of brewer-specific tap handles, an art lost on most Japanese barkeeps.

Nestled deep within the crannies of Shibuya's fashion district, underneath one of the countless boutiques that dot the area, "Extreme Beer and Bourbon" bar Craftheads has quickly established itself as a must-go for Tokyo craft beer enthusiasts.

We sat down with founder and proprietor Koji Nomura to get the skinny on his tall beer tale.

CNNGo: So Craftheads is, obviously, about craft beer. What exactly is craft beer? What makes it different from 'normal' beer?

Koji Nomura: Craft brews are usually defined as the smallest of the so-called micro-brewed beers and are generally regarded as being for connoisseurs.
People who drink these beers are looking for a strong hops flavor and malty characteristics and are generally fed up with the yellow, fizzy, bland beers that they get from the likes of Anheuser-Busch or Asahi.

CNNGo: It seems that the good beer movement seems to be proceeding slower here than it has in the United States, though. Any thoughts on why?

Nomura: I believe it's only been about 15 years since the Japanese laws changed, making it legal to brew beer in smaller quantities. Before that, there was a minimum tank volume required for brewing operations which means you basically had to be a Kirin, Asahi, or Sapporo in order to get a license. Everybody here agrees on this: small-scale beer brewing in Japan got off to a false start initially, as all of the early efforts were initiatives sponsored by local governments in rural areas. These so-called "ji-biru," or local beers, weren't brewed so much for quality as they were to bring tourist money to regional farming concerns. Even though they didn't really have the knowledge to make good beer, they discovered they could get licenses and started doing it. Things have changed, but despite the choices available, including imports, micro-brews still only account for 1% of the beer sold in Japan, according to sales data. 

CraftheadsCraftheads proprietor Koji Nomura (AKA "Michael" to some of his Japanese patrons).CNNGo: Why do you think that is?

Nomura: If I knew the answer to that question I would probably make a fortune! Maybe it's a price issue. After all, they can get fake beer-style happoshu at convenience stores for ¥200. It could be a taste issue, too. Maybe Japanese consumers don't want the richer flavor and character of these stronger beers. But if the over 3,000 people who attend the beer festival held here annually are any indication, maybe there is a future for good beer in Japan.

CNNGo: OK, you mentioned happoshu, so I have to ask: What is it with those beer substitutes and so-called 'third wave' faux beers made with soy peptides?

Nomura: Look, I don’t think Japanese brewers are making those beverages because they want to. They're simply trying to deal with how the Japanese government taxes alcoholic beverages. The purpose of those products is to inflate unit sales for the benefit of shareholders. I think we will see a backlash in 10 years or so, with the major brewers in Japan going back to promoting premium beer. As profit margins are higher for real beer, the brewers don't want young people do grow up being accustomed to substitutes -- they will want to bring them back into the fold.

CNNGo: Let’s talk about you a bit. How did your love affair with craft beer begin?

Nomura: 10 years ago I started a bourbon bar in Kawasaki. At the time there were a lot of Scotch bars in Tokyo, but I had a history with the United States, so I went to Kentucky and met with bourbon distillers to source unique whiskeys. During my adventures, I got blown away by some of the great beers available. I had a Hair of the Dog barley wine at DBA in New York, and it changed beer for me forever. So after that fateful day five years ago I started carrying craft beer. The following year I was in Oregon talking directly to the brewers.

CNNGo: And when did you make the leap into opening Craftheads in Shibuya?

Nomura: In September of 2009. I felt I needed to open up in the big city in order to spread the word about craft beer and the culture and community that surrounds it. My grandfather used to live in Shibuya, and I grew up here, so it seemed like a natural progression for me.

CraftheadsCraftheads has a warm, inviting décor that would look at home on the streets of Seattle.CNNGo: How has the response been? Are you attracting a clientele that really appreciates the beer?

Nomura: So far, I've been happy with the turnout. We've been getting a good crowd and that helps me pay the rent! They are mostly new customers, not typical Japanese beer drinkers. I don't force people into my philosophy, but when they come in and drink a good IPA, most of them get hooked. I would say 80% of my traffic is repeat customers.

CNNGo: Do you mainly rely on word-of-mouth?

Nomura: Yes. Our website, blogs, Twitter -- that's all the advertising we do. And it's working. As far as I know we were the first beer bar in Tokyo with a Twitter feed, and that's important because craft beer culture has spread with the Internet. Even in the United States, people use SNS apps to share information on breweries, beers, and bars -- an important tool in a country where many craft brews never cross state lines. Now, with an active community and information readily available, a person in New York may find out about a great San Diego beer and try to get his hands on it. I hope that we can replicate that feeling of community through our efforts here. 

CNNGo: And you are using traditional media as well -- like your column in the Japanese lifestyle magazine "Lightning"?

Nomura: Yeah, I don't really like the spotlight, but I find it necessary to be an advocate. Since "Lightning" primarily deals with American pop culture tailored to the Japanese sensibility, I use my column to introduce American craft beer culture to a larger audience.

CNNGo: Any final comments for our readers?

Nomura: I know that craft beer isn't cheap, especially in Japan, but I hope that more people give it a try. Beer is about people, and craft beer really brings home the connection between the brewer, the server and the drinker. Besides, what better way to fuel up after a hard day of work then with a nice, hoppy ale?

Craftheads: B1F, Jinnan 1-3-10, Shibuya-ku, tel. 03 6416 9474,, cash only, weekdays 5pm-12am, Saturday 3pm-12am, Sunday and holidays 3-10pm, Twitter feed: