How to Live Off Beer and Sake in Kyoto
Here, we spotlight American expats around the globe and get their insider tips on the best places to eat and drink in their adopted cities.
The Expat: Mark Meli, author of Craft Beer in Japan, the first and only English-language guide to Japan’s craft breweries and craft beer bars, published in September. The Rochester, New York native is also a professor at Kansai University in Osaka; he’s based in Kyoto.
Where do you live in Kyoto, and what do you love most about your neighborhood?
I live on Kujoyama Mountain in the eastern part of the city. It’s a small mountain, but forested and quite wild, though it's still in the city proper. Nearby is my favorite restaurant in the city, Okariba (“The Hunting Lodge”). It’s an izakaya serving mountain foods, mainly barbecued game as well as wild vegetables, with lots of great sake, of course.
What is the Japanese craft beer scene like?
There are about 220 craft or microbreweries in Japan now. Since small-scale brewing was made possible in 1994, there have been many that have come and gone. Lots of those that failed thought that merely having a beer that came from a famous place would be enough to sell it, even if it didn’t taste good at all. Those kinds of breweries are few these days, with more and more brewing for people who really want beers full of character. The scene here is highly influenced by what happens in America, of course, and now hops are all the rage. But I would say that one big difference is the lingering appeal of German and British styles here, and the way in which many Japanese brewers replicate those styles authentically. There are many great pilsners, weizens and bockbiers made here.
Where are your favorite places to try Japanese craft beers in Kyoto?
Wachi is an izakaya specializing in smoked and grilled foods with about 200 bottled beers from all over the world, roughly 50 of which are Japanese craft beers. Bungalow is a young, hip bar with 10 taps of Japanese craft beer. They feature beers by Shiga Kogen, who make hoppy American-style IPAs as well as several different saisons. They also serve Baird, which makes beers with Japanese fruits and other native ingredients, and also usually a good amount of hops. Tadg’s is a friendly gastro pub with nine taps of Japanese craft beer, bottles of imported craft beer, and great pub food. I recommend the grilled calamari and the pizza.
You’re also a sake expert. Where are your favorite places to try sake in Kyoto?
Wachi (above) also has a great collection of sake and shochu. En is the traditional-styled tasting room for Fujioka Shuzo, whose Sookuu line of sake is, in my humble opinion, the best in the city. Jam Bar has about 70 sakes and well-chosen tasting flights. The sake selection is always evolving. They usually have a couple of Tamagawa sakes from Northern Kyoto Prefecture. These are often fermented, rather like Belgian lambics, with the yeast living in their brewery rafters. They tend to be rather acidic and somewhat funky.
- What are some must-try foods in Kyoto and where are your favorite places to get them?
- You must have kaiseki ryori, the highly refined, multi-course meal that originated with the tea ceremony in the Middle Ages. There are many places serving this, and one reasonably priced favorite of mine is Suien. Kyoto pickles are also fantastic, made of all kinds of vegetables, but especially turnips, daikon, and cucumbers. These go fabulously with a bowl of rice, and even better with a glass of sake (or a saison). There are shops in the Nishiki market were you can see barrels of the pickles for sale, in a rainbow of colors. Botan nabe is a stew of wild boar meat flavored with miso paste. It’s usually consumed in winter, and is rich, hearty food that will change many people’s minds about all Japanese cuisine being light and dainty. It is best had up in Kurama, in the mountainous north of the city.
What one food or drink item would you miss the most if you left Kyoto?
The sake. Hands down. The vast selection of local brews, hand-crafted in small breweries, is fantastic, especially the unpasteurized “namazake.” The sake you find overseas doesn’t come close.
Ratha Tep is a former Food & Wine editor who lives in Zurich.