All over Japan now, craft beer is on the rise. All kinds of craft beers are being born nationwide, and many stands exist to provide varied tasting experiences.
In Yanaka, Tokyo where a traditional old-town vibe still holds deep roots, "Yanaka Beer Hall" serves a craft beer bearing the name of the same town. What makes Yanaka Beer special, and in the first place, what is a craft beer? We have visited Yanaka Beer Hall, to find out!
Enjoy craft beer in Yanaka
Yanaka Beer Hall, born in Yanaka amongst the friendly old-town atmosphere.
“Yanaka” is a popular sightseeing area where people can enjoy the atmosphere of Tokyo's working/merchant-class old-town. In this town where the many wooden buildings and narrow alleyways evoke the early to mid-1900s, a new multipurpose facility was born. This venue, "Ueno Sakuragi Atari" was completed in 2015, and renovated from what was previously an old traditional Japanese home built in 1938. While keeping the old look of the architecture, the building's tenants are geared towards enriching the lives of its modern neighbors. One such tenant is "Yanaka Beer Hall", the focus of this article.
About a 10-minute walk from JR Nippori Station. “Ueno Sakuragi Atari” is a multipurpose commercial facility with 3 renovated old houses standing side by side.
Yanaka Beer Hall is in the frontmost house.
“Yanaka Beer Hall” serves Yanaka’s craft beer named “Yanaka Beer”.The shop is located in a renovated Kominka to show off the retro vibes by using materials, such as timbers aging into deep amber color, screw-type keys on window frames and old newspapers on the wall, reminding us of the Showa period.
The Retro Interior of Yanaka Beer Hall retains the look of the Showa Era
An attractive exterior full of nostalgia
Yanaka Beer Hall not only serves Yanaka's craft beer, but also the unique concept of its design. Beyond the fancy doors and their contoured glass, both of which are original components from the building, is an eclectic interior that mixes old and new. A bar counter, table seats, and a second floor with Japanese-style tatami rooms accommodates the guest.
The counter is still new, but has a great presence. The wood is sure to patina with age.
Tatami room in the 2nd floor. The "Tokonoma" (alcove) remains as it was.
On the second floor of Yanaka Beer Hall is a Japanese-style tatami room, equipped with retro-looking floor fans and aged wooden cupboards. The cupboards have been modified long ago by the craftsman at the time, to release pleasing music box-like sounds when being opened and closed. The soft resonance is a hard one to describe in words, and is supposedly a crafty modification made to double as an anti-theft measure.
The goal in every decision of designing this building, was to maintain the original aesthetic while adding retro-themed items to increase its appeal. These design choices were made with the cooperation of "NPO Taito Cultural and Historical Society", whose hope it is to maintain the heritage of Showa-era Japan. Today, they continue to seek ways to preserve and improve old traditional homes in the area.
An old screw-type key, no longer in production.
One example of this preservation effort is the newspaper on the walls, whose current primary purpose is to hide the damage behind them. These newspapers were found in the old home pre-renovation, and many are preserved well enough that their content can still be read. Due to this, they were decided to be used as interior pieces on the walls. Visiting the Yanaka Beer Hall can be said to be a kind of treasure hunt, for little hints of a gone Showa Era in the store's nooks and crannies.
Newspapers in the Showa period cover the walls.
The person introducing Yanaka Beer to us today is Ms. Hitomi Yoshida, CEO of Innova Japan Ltd. She tells us that when she is there to manage the store, she comes in kimono to blend into the store aesthetic. Her vibrant red kimono was beautiful, and indeed fit right into the old-fashioned scenery that was Beer Hall Yanaka's interior.
Ms. Yoshida tells us that in the process of creating Yanaka Beer, she also deepened her knowledge on beer. Let us get right into it, and have her show us what makes Yanaka Beer special.
Ms. Hitomi Yoshida with her brilliant smile
Craft Beers: What are they, and what makes them Special?
Yanaka Beer was made in collaboration with one of Japan's leading craft-beer makers, "August Beer". August beer was established in 2004 in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward, and produces high-quality craft beer that pleases the palates of beer-lovers around Japan. As implied by the name "August" (which can mean respectable, or venerable), the company greatly values beer-making with traditional techniques and integrity. While it was originally a "phantom brewery" without its own brewing facilities, August Beer now has its "Kiyosu-bashi Brewery" near Sumida River where the company manufactures its own original craft beers.
What is craft beer?
What is the “craft beer” that's all the rage in Tokyo?
The word "craft beer" has become common in everyday life now, but this was not always the case. The craft beer as a word and concept was imported into Japan from the United States, and only started being used around 2001. Before that in the 1990s, the craze in Japan was all about "ji-beers", local beers made in small breweries from nationwide. Although similar in concept, craft beers replaced the ji-beer with its own trend, and became an umbrella term, describing all beers made by small breweries with a great love for their craft.
What is the difference between craft beer and "ji-beer"?
A "craft beer" is a beer made by smaller breweries with special love and attention to their craft. They might have special preferences for the used hop, add extra flavor to their beer with fruits, or otherwise add unique touches that bring out the unique characteristics of the brewery.
"Ji-beers" that were the trend before craft beers, are no different from the latter in that they are made with specific methods by smaller breweries. The ji-beer craze began around 1994, when small beer breweries popped up in localities all around Japan to change the beer industry with newfound variety. Unlike beer made by big corporations, ji-beers gained popularity with their unique flavors, each made to represent their locales. That said, the trend also did not take long to die down. This was because many of the huge numbers of new breweries also contributed to an influx in mediocre beers.
Its history of rapid rise and fall aside, ji-beers are also a kind of craft beer. Ms. Yoshida tells us, "Yanaka Beer can also be considered a ji-beer, when considering its origins in the locale of Yanaka, Tokyo."
For more on the history of ji-beers and Craft beers:
Craft Beer Club Popeye in Ryogoku, Tokyo
Tasting different kinds of Yanaka Beer at Yanaka Beer Hall!
Yanaka Beer is based on August Beer's "August Lager", and comes in 4 varieties. Alongside the most basic "Yanaka Beer", there is also the smooth "Yanaka Dry", the rich and fragrant "Yanaka Golden", and deeply savory "Yanaka Bitter." The 4 types were created progressively to respond to the needs of their consumers. In addition to these 4 varieties of Yanaka Beer and August Lager, Yanaka Beer Hall also offers August IPA, August White, and August Black for a total of 8 different beers at any time.
Neatly lined beer servers
The list of beers at Yanaka Beer Hall still goes on. With the "flavor tuner" made in Tsubame-Sanjo of Niigata, a town renown for its rich craftsmanship culture, Yanaka Beer Hall also offers special beers infused with fruits and herbs.
Draft beer made on site. You can encounter beers never seen before.
The ingredients are changed every season, and in September when this article is being written, Tosa-Konatsu (a citrus fruit of Tosa, Kochi Prefecture) is placed in the flavor tuner to add to the flavor of the beer. If you come in the fall time, you might be get a fruity beer with persimmon and pear, or herb-accented beer with cilantro's fragrance. With this crafty menu, you might discover a different beer with every season.
Difference between Pilsners and Ales
On the menu at Yanaka Beer Hall, you will see that the 8 beers on the regular listing are labelled as either ales or pilsners. These are the two major categorizations of beers, that differ in many aspects including manufacturing process and flavor.
Ms. Yoshida pours beer in an experienced manner.
"In the process of beer manufacturing, yeast goes through fermentation to create carbon gas and other components of a beer. Ales are fermented in high temperature over short periods of time, and the yeast floats to the top after the process. On the other hand, pilsners are fermented in low temperature over long periods of time, and the yeast can be found sunken to the bottom of the tank afterwards.
Let’s taste the difference of 4 kinds of Yanaka Beer.
Yanaka Beer Hall recommends beginners to try the “Tasting set Yanaka series” to compare 4 kinds of Yanaka Beer. From the left stands Yanaka Dry, Yanaka Beer, Yanaka Golden and Yanaka Bitter filled in small 120ml glasses. The 4 beers are distinct in appearance too.
”Tasting set Yanaka series” (1,400JPY)
Our tasting experience begins with the standard Yanaka Beer.
Yanaka Beer uses two different types of hops, and has a much more refreshing taste than it looks. The beer uses roasted wheat alongside hop, creating a savory roasted aroma that passes the nose as the beer goes down. Yanaka Beer is mild in its bitterness and very easy to drink. The deep amber coloring is said to represent the famous sunset of Yanaka, making this a beer that truly represents the region.
Next on the list was Yanaka Dry.
Yanaka Dry has a much lighter color than the others, and its flavor is appropriately light and refreshing! It is a beer that I would strongly recommend to people like myself, who either are not very experienced with, or do not like the bitterness of beer. The clear flavor of the beer was extremely pleasing and went down like water!
The alcohol content of Yanaka Dry is also lighter compared to the others, so it is also recommended to those with low alcohol tolerances.
Yanaka Dry, Yanaka Beer, Yanaka Golden and Yanaka Bitter from the left
Third up is Yanaka Golden, characterized by a rich and full fragrance.
The name "golden" is of course taken from its color, but also from the rich flavor. This one was also on the lighter, more refreshing side. With its fruity hints that harmonize perfectly with the bitterness, Yanaka Golden is a beer I would recommend to true lovers of pilsners.
The last of the bunch is Yanaka Bitter, the only ale on the list.
The ale is a very old method of beer-making originating in Great Britain, and perhaps less familiar to Japanese people than the pilsner that is more commonplace. Ales are characterized by a deep flavor that changes whimsically on the palate, and Yanaka Bitter is no exception.
Even with a deep bitterness, Yanaka Bitter passes the throat with the complex fragrance of wheat. It has a sharp bitterness and spice that Ms. Yoshida says would be great for people who love wine.
Edamame made in Donabe finishes to be fluffy
Even being a complete beginner to beer, the four variations of Yanaka Beer were all incredibly distinct. Nothing goes better with that beer than the sausages and edamame here, cooked to perfection in the earthenware Iga pottery.
You can enjoy beer in the bench seat in front of the store. （One-size beer is served in case of drinking outside.）
Let’s go to Yanaka to find out your favorite beer!
After trying 4 types of beer at Yanaka Beer Hall, my favorite of them was the extremely light, Yanaka Dry. Just tell Ms. Yoshida and the staff what kind of beer you prefer, and they are sure to serve you the perfect beverage!
Drinking craft beer is a slow and relaxing experience, different from drinking at parties and upscale restaurants. Try it out at Yanaka Beer Hall, where the old and new harmonize!