by Kumiko Matsuda
It’s practically the middle of winter and for some reason I find myself drinking a beer. No, I’m not slumming away in some yakitori bar with construction workers, and the beer I’m drinking is not Super Dry.
I’m actually in a cozy little basement spot in Akasaka, and am enjoying but one of the many different kinds of beers that are artisanally brewed in the Belgian countryside as they have been for hundreds of years. These are not mere refreshers — rather, they are as serious as wine, and enjoyed year round.
The little spot is just down a narrow stairwell, off a crowded alleyway, about two minutes from the subway station. Should you also be able to find it, and push open the heavy wooden door, you’ll also find this unostentatiously sans facon, en dishabille miracle of a Belgian haven. As I did, you may also find the bald and brief appearance of the exterior in sharp contrast to the warm and cozy interior, which matches perfectly the passion of the owner, Mr. Yamada.
It is nothing else but his ardor and verve to install six refrigerators operating at different temperatures to achieve seven levels of temperature (including the basement “cellar” temperature) to enable the proper serving temperature for the some 270 kinds of Belgian beer on offer. Although Belgian beer bars have become trendy around Tokyo in the past five years or so, I do not know of any other place that comes close to offering a selection of this magnitude.
You can see Mr. Yamada’s pride in creating this cozy friendly atmosphere when he shows up behind the counter, wearing his little aureate red and gold vest. Ordering a beer here is done with seriousness and great deliberation, as one looks through a menu full of abundant expression and nuance. It’s as if you are not looking at beer menu, but rather a dazzling list of highclass wine.
Mr. Yamada is known as Japan’s leading expert on Belgian beer. Naturally, this establishment is recognized as Japan’s finest Belgian beer specialty bar.
Look at these descriptions: “airy-fairy, reminiscent of white flowers,” “aroma of citrus, refreshing brisknes,”, “flavors of roasted malts,” “rustic deep flavor, fragrance of fully-ripened banana,” “almond flavor, orange spicy savor,” “integrated flavor created by a harmonious combination of berries and herbs,” “coriander aroma,” and many kinds of balance, and so on…This is not the single brassy note of common beer, but rather a symphony of a full orchestra of flavors.
So what did I end up ordering? It was a style of beer called Gueuze (say “gooze”) from a small brewery that has already been shut down by EU authorities because its natural fermentation method uses allegedly unsanitary manufacturing methods. This means it is such a bona notabilia, the precious cargo you’ll never taste it after this stock will be finished. While I have some experience tasting different kinds of beer, I would say that this was not like beer at all, but more like the most delicate sherry, that was what I tasted.
Besides dropping in for a beer, there are regular events that explain this place very well from a different point of view. One called ‘Ni-sui-kai’ meaning the “Second Wednesday Meeting” every month. On the second Wednesday of every month, like- inded regular customers gather and enjoy a special selection of beers, matched with regional Belgian dishes. Themes of past evenings tell the story well: “Beer and Honey,” “White beer, white asparagus, and white cheese” and “Strong amber beer and leeks” are but a few recent examples. If I am only staring at a menu of specific beers and food, I think I can take a quick flight of fancy into a dream world, if only for a while.
Since the entire space is spread out half and half for the bar and the restaurant, the food we had was very good, too. While biting the endive in cheese as Mr. Yamada tells us the story of its derivation, or savoring the crunch of the crispy waffles with salmon which goes surprisingly well with these beers, or even rummaging through a bucket of mussels steamed in tart, crisp beer – we found the food remarkably good.
As we were leaving the place, we felt wrapped in the song from Mr. Yamada’s piano. This was but one more blessing, notable for its rarity – like finding perfectly stored and served beers from the Belgian countryside in the middle of Tokyo.