Without question if there is ONE beer destination you get to in Tokyo, it better be Popeye.
It seems they had more modest ambitions when they set up their website as it is www.40beersontap.com. In reality this place has 70 tap lines including three hand-pulls, real ales and a “Hops Heart” (I didn’t get a look at it but I guess it’s a Randall, a filter you can run tap beer through to add some kind of extra flavor, typically more hops).
A huge number of these 70 beers are the best of Japanese microbrews. Others include imports from Belgium, the UK, Germany, and a few American varieties (the increasingly traveling Rogue ales from Oregon, for example.)
The bar is nonsmoking which is a real rarity in Japan. Though it is quite a big place by Tokyo standards – lots of tables, some bar space – it gets crowded as hell on weekends and you may have to wait for a seat, especially if you are with a larger group. I went alone a couple times and got squeezed onto a bar stool, and I do mean squeezed – almost shoulder to shoulder with my new Japanese drinking buddies.
Service is outstanding in true Japanese manner. Every time I’ve gone I have been seated by an older barman out among the tables in his apron. This is the house’s Clark Kent: Aoki-san is really the passionate beer Superman who owns this place. I love that.
Here’s a photo of Aoki-san with the legendary beer expert Michael Jackson.
With all the orders coming in so fast and from a list of 70, the bartender literally has his hands full. He receives a little label written in Japanese which he places on his wrist and transfers to a glass as soon as its poured.
Kiro-san was a wonder to watch as he went all Karate Kid on that wall of taps: tap on, tap off, filling one in each hand at the same time.
Happy hour is awesome. Buy specially listed beers, get free food. A little half-plate from a short list of appetizers arrives with every glass of beer.
Check out the elderly Japanese man sitting next to me making notes about everything he drinks.
A flaming dessert drew my attention. Right behind me was a Japanese woman who confided that she is a homebrewer. I was puzzled by her cautious admission, but she explained. Homebrewing is illegal in Japan! Or rather, you can only brew something less than 1% alcohol. Sounds insane, no? But it was the same in the US until President Jimmy Carter changed that law in 1978.
Here are a couple of Wisconsin surprises:
First off, Point Bock tap handle???! That’s pretty rare even back home in Wisconsin.
And a New Glarus Brewing carton – a hugely popular Wisconsin brewery that refuses to distribute outside the state borders and still manages to sell a crap-ton of beer. They are famous for Spotted Cow, among others. And here it is stapled to the ceiling at Popeye. Gotta love that.
They have WiFi as well so you can tell all your friends on the interwebs how awesome it is and how badly their current position in life sucks by comparison.
What I had when I went there last (October 2012):
This is Tokyo, so expect the beers to be expensive (though they are quite reasonable by Tokyo standards). But the great thing is if you are here to explore you can opt for smaller 9 oz. pours (roughly $8USD) and get through many more styles/brands for your money. And if you come for happy hour, the value of the free food makes this almost seem economical. Get a member card and enjoy 10% off the bill. I got one in 2011 and used it almost exactly a year later.
Popeye was a tip from Japan-based beer writer Bryan Harrell who is a great resource for what’s new on the scene.
Take the JR line to JR Ryogoku station.