The rise of craft beer is now a global phenomenon, and Japan has steadily developed a thriving craft culture over the past decades. While bottles of Hitachino Nest pop up at bars and restaurants around town, Little Tokyo's Far Bar has the best selection of bottled Japanese imports that you can find.
The craft brewing industry really took off in Japan after the government deregulated breweries in the mid-'90s, and there are now more than 200 craft operations in the country. Taking influence from classic German techniques and the creative energy of the American craft movement, Japanese craft beers offer much more than the light and extra-dry lagers from the big producers.
The bottle list at Far Bar encompasses as much of the variety as possible, and Far Bar's "Beer Sensei" (a.k.a. beer program manager) Guìllermo Bugarin says that they've added just about everything they can get their hands on to the list. "I've added four [more] recently," he says. "I don't think we'll be adding more unless something new comes to market."
The big producers like Sapporo, Kirin and Asahi are all represented, alongside 13 smaller breweries, and bottles (and cans) will set you back $7 to $10. It can be daunting to figure out where to start, but here are a few standouts of the list:
Hitachino Nest - Red Rice: This complex Belgian-style pale ale made with rice balances fruity, spicy esters from Belgian yeast with the signature sake-like dry and floral flavors of fermented rice. It's surprisingly drinkable, and while it's not the best of the Hitachino lineup (that honor belongs to the Espresso Stout or the sake cask aged XH), the Red Rice ale is undeniably interesting.
Yo-ho Brewing - Aooni IPA: A West Coast IPA from the East, the brewery's Aooni IPA cans crop up at bottle shops and even Whole Foods markets around town, and a fresh can will remind you of Ballast Point's superlative Sculpin IPA. There's lots of citrus and grapefruit bitterness over a lean malt core with just enough body to keep the palate wanting more. The brewery's Tokyo Black is a good option if you're in the mood for something more malty and roasty.
COEDO Shikkoku black lager: Japan's craft industry was built on German lager styles. After the government's deregulation of the brewing industry, many German brewers were brought in to help develop the skills and techniques that the upstart craft operations needed, and they left a lingering mark on the scene. COEDO, near Tokyo, makes some excellent examples of traditional German styles, and their black lager — or schwarzbier — is particularly good. Craft Imports LLC began to bring COEDO brews into the U.S. last year, and Far Bar manages to score some of the few kegs of COEDO beer that is imported. A draught pour of the inky-black, yet light and refreshing Shikkoku is the best way to experience its espresso-like roasted flavors and delicate hoppy finish. The brewery also makes a perfectly balanced and bright Czech-style pilsner (which was also available on draught at Far Bar during our visit).
Niigata Beer Co. - Wasabi Ale: Instead of a recommendation, let this be a warning. Don't let the the adorable bottle and promise of an interesting experience fool you, this beer is next to undrinkable. It's not that it will overwhelm your palate with wasabi heat, it's just a mess of unbalanced umami, citrus and vegetal flavors with an off-putting seaweed finish. Steer clear unless you really want to experience a unique beer flavor profile. The brewery's 8% "Golden Kolsch" was far better (but still pretty odd).
Far Bar: 347 E 1st St., Los Angeles, (213) 617-9990.