Craft beers are brewed nationwide in Japan. Originally, these kinds of beers were called “ji-beers” (local beer) in japan, but are recently called “craft beers”. Craft beers are becoming widely known and loved as beers full of character, produced with a combination of the brewer’s thoughts and passions.
I learned about “BEER CLUB POPEYE”, a specialty craft beer bar located in Ryogoku and decided to visit them. BEER CLUB POPEYE usually features more than 70-80 selections of craft beer. Popeye is also known as the place responsible for making the word “craft beer” popular in Japan. I asked Popeye about their history and philosophy, as well as about their original craft beer.
BEER CLUB POPEYE: laying the cornerstone of Japanese craft beer
Inside appearance of Popeye. Taps and various glasses are displayed
The word “craft beer” has become widely known in Japan, with many opportunities present at the daily dinner table, drinking parties, and other events to experience craft beer. However, the word “craft beer” began to be used in Japan only about 10 years ago. BEER CLUB POPEYE, located two minutes from JR Ryogoku Station by foot, is known to be responsible for popularizing the phrase “craft beer”.
Large beer glass statue is the club’s landmark
The main reasons why beer lovers frequently visit this club are the many selections of craft beer available, and the presence of the staff that know all about craft beers. Of course, it is also great that we can enjoy unique dishes that perfectly match each individual beer.
This time I interviewed Popeye’s manager, Mr. Kido, and the club’s founder, Mr. Aoki, about the ties between craft beer and Popeye, as well as their philosophies about craft beer.
Club manager Mr. Kido
From ji-beer (local beer) to craft beer. Japanese beer changes with the times
The trigger for Popeye to become a famous craft beer club was the “Ji-beer Brewing Permission” issued in 1994, when the Liquor Tax Law was revised and the brewing regulations were eased. Jibeer started to be brewed widely in Japan.
There used to be an implicit rule that each restaurant would carry only one major brewery’s beer. When Mr. Aoki, the founder of the western style izakaya bar BEER CLUB POPEYE, heard that ji-beer brewing was deregulated, he developed the concept to make a bar which would carry various kinds of ji-beer. “A sake dealer with which we did business stocked several kinds of ji-beer for our club, so we could start handling ji-beer, although for the first few years we carried only about 10 kinds of jibeer,” Mr. Aoki said. In this fashion, Popeye changed from a western style izakaya bar to a specialty beer bar where customers can enjoy various types of craft beers.
The interior of Popeye was inspired by bars in the United States, where craft beer culture is widespread.
There is a Maneki Neko (lucky charm cat) in front of the counter even though it is an American-style beer bar
From here I would like to explain how the phrase “craft beer” started to be used.
The deregulation of beer-brewing practices allowed for beer to be brewed in smaller batches. It was “Echigo Beer” the year after, that opened the floodgates for regional ji-beer production all over Japan.
By the way, “jibeer” is almost the same usage as the phrase for Japanese sake “jizake”, which is the same concept meaning “local sake”. In the five years from 1995 to 2000, locality-based small production breweries suddenly increased. However, the low requirement for starting a brewery brought an influx of low-quality ji-beers. This hit-or-miss nature of the ji-beer industry gradually slowed down the boom.
Here is when “craft beers” come into the picture.
Instead of using the word ji-beer, the phrase “craft beer” was popularized to mean a “beer produced by a unique and small production brewery with a commitment to beer”. “The phrase ‘craft beer’ itself previously existed and did not originate at that time. Craft beer sounds much more modern and approachable than ji-beer, don’t you think? That’s why I used the word ‘craft beer’ and held a craft beer festival” Mr. Aoki told me.
By the time the ji-beer boom was slowing down, the ji-beer bar Popeye already had many fans and Mr. Aoki’s name was known throughout the industry. By actively pushing for the usage of the word “craft beer”, Mr. Aoki would gradually spread the word’s popularity.
Enjoy craft beer at “Yanaka Beer Hall”, a renovated traditional house!
Popeye always stocks more than 70 to 80 kinds of craft beer.
Now there are many craft beers brewed nationwide, and in December 2019, the number of breweries was close to 400. Craft beer has become widely popular, with craft beer events held in various places and available in supermarkets.
Just looking at the more than 100 taps makes you excited
Popeye is the key player that promoted craft beers while they were still unknown, and laid the cornerstone for the craft beer boom that came to be. There are more than 100 taps lined up in the store, with 70 to 80 of them connected to differently labeled barrels. It is rare nationwide to find 70 to 80 selections of beer when visiting a bar, even at a specialty bar such as Popeyes. One of the vast selection prepared by Popeye, is bound to be your favorite beer.
The award certificate announced every year by RateBeer, the world’s largest craft beer rating site
Enjoying the beers’ character: Popeye’s methods of savoring craft beer
With their love for craft beers, and understanding for the maker’s commitment to their craft, Popeye strives to serve the best quality beer for customers. They enhance each beer’s individuality by carefully choosing how to pour, the types of glasses according to the variety of beer, and whether to make a foamy head or not.
The blackboard inside the bar listing the recommended beers by type
At Popeye, in order to maximize each beer’s delicious taste, meticulous care is put into the beer’s carbonation level as well as the humidity inside the bar.
Mr. Aoki explained that “Since beer has mild acidity, the same beer can taste great or too sour according to that day’s humidity. This is because our human body is more sensitive about sourness in lower humidity. I learned with my own experience. With 20% humidity or 30% humidity, the taste is totally different even if you drink the same beer. So here at Popeye, we change the recommended beers according to the humidity.”
Popeye shows its dedication to constantly creating the appropriate environment for savoring beer, by implementing a humidifier in late autumn when the humidity begins to fall.
A refreshing swig of beer after a tough work day and lengthy bath is always great, but the manager Mr. Kido wanted me to take it slower with craft beer. He said, “I want you to enjoy the aroma before you drink and taste the craft beer throughout your mouth.” Instead of judging the taste as the beer passes down the throat, or by the aftertaste, or the foam, he wanted to me to taste the difference of each craft beer one by one like tasting wine. He continued, “Try enjoying beer that way, and you won’t ever feel the same about chugging beer!”
Popeye is careful about how to pour each beer.
Before drinking, think: how is the aroma? As you sip the craft beer, think: how is the flavor of the bitterness, acidity, and smell? After swallowing, how is the aftertaste and the aroma remaining in your nose and mouth? Each beer brilliantly reflects their makers’ individuality and commitment, and it is a great experience to savor every one of their flavors and characteristics.
Recommended beers from Popeye’s original brews.
Originally, more than drinking, Mr. Aoki was attracted to brewing beer. In 2014, he finally decided to make Popeye-original beers with a directly managed brewery. 12 varieties of Popeye labeled beers are made at a brewery in Minami Uonuma city, Niigata prefecture. This time, from the 12 original brews, I will recommend and introduce three types.
Nine Hundred English Pale Ale: packing a powerful punch
Nine Hundred English Pale Ale: large 1,050 yen
This one is called Nine Hundred English Pale Ale. This beer filling the glass to the brim has a rich, powerful taste that packs the punch you would expect from a pale ale. The flavor might match well with strong tasting foods such as meat dishes.
The aroma, bitterness, and acidity are very well balanced and rich. One of Popeye’s specialties is to preserve the strong flavor by pouring the beer as gently as possible to avoid making a lot of foam.
Uonuma Rice Weizen Brut Ver.: using 50% high quality Uonuma Koshihikari rice
Uonuma Rice Weizen Brut Ver. large 1,152 yen
Uonuma Rice Weizen Brut Ver. is served topped with plenty of delicate foam in a tall tapered glass. This beer has a totally different taste compared to the previously introduced English Pale Ale with an impressive strong carbonation and mellow aroma. While pouring with foam, the beer mixes well in the glass, creating a mild flavor. The 50% Uonuma Koshihikari rice grain adds sweetness and a slight fruity mild fragrance like a banana.
Love Potion #9 Barley Wine 60: fruity but with strong alcohol
Love Potion #9 Burley Wine 60 768 yen
Love Potion #9 Barley Wine 60 is the pictured beer, poured into a wine glass with a wide mouth. This beer combines fruity flavors with bitterness, and just like a glass of wine, gives plenty of reason to be slowly savored with every part of the tongue. Having a citrus and berry sweet fragrance, it is recommended with an after-dinner dessert. At Popeye this beer has the highest amount of alcohol at 9%, and after drinking it, the alcohol aroma escapes from your nose.
I was convinced about how wide and deep the world of craft beer flavors is from these 3 different styles of beer. Each of them has matching individual dishes and situations with which they should be drank. When you stop by, it would be great to choose your beer according to your day’s feeling, for the spice of spontaneity. Please enjoy the various flavors of each, and thoroughly taste the depth of the craft beers.
Beer Club Popeye knows all about craft beer.
Mr. Aoki said “Craft beer is also an art.”Just like a cake made by a pastry chef or a dish cooked by a professional cook, beer is an art which combines refined technology with the maker’s ‘sensitivity’ to create a product that truly fascinates its consumers.
“Now, Popeye original beer has technique but not enough sensitivity. It has not yet reached the point to fascinate consumers with its taste at an instinctive level.” This means that even Popeye beers, brewed by the place renowned for craft beer, has plenty of space for improvement.
From the spring of 2020, Popeye is planning to start brewing craft beer at Ryogoku, where the club is located. The varieties of beer born in Ryougoku will be added to the selections. Will this be the coming of a new craft beer to fuse technology to art, to satisfy the pursuit of Mr. Aoki, and to shock the taste buds of beer connoisseurs? Head to Popeye in Ryogoku, Tokyo, to taste craft beers like you have never tasted before.