Hygge In Shibuya: A Night In Mikkeller Tokyo

Craft Beer Mikkeller Toyko

A tale of romance in a foreign land.

I’ve always had a bit of a known soft spot for Mikkeller. After all, it was in their quaint Copenhagen taproom where I first learned to love craft beer. Remembering that night brings up the same sort of warm nostalgia that I imagine most people might normally link with losing their virginities or their first kiss. In some ways, this to me was equally formative.

I can still picture the bar. It’s a clean, well-lighted place. It beams out into the Danish night, like that diner in the painting Night Owls. The entire place feels lived in, yet clean in the way only the Scandinavians have managed to accomplish. It’s based around the Danish word- Hygge¸ which while having no direct translation equates to a cozy and simply warmth. It is the kind of room that you dream your home will look like when you confidently enter an Ikea, but such miracles of design are beyond modular furniture.

The bartender has long black hair and an easy, friendly laugh that I desperately need to hear more of. We briefly talk while I wait for my friends, and I immediately fall deeply in love with her when she talks about playing the viola. When they finally show, I order a number four from the menu, and she hands them to me smiling. “May the fours be with you,” she says, “Star Wars joke.”

As fondly as I remember her, I remember the beer more. At this point, I was twenty years old and my definition of a good beer was anything that wasn’t Keystone Light. Inside the tulip glass was the Monks Elixir, chosen for its name because I am an enormous dork. It was a complex and beautiful Belgian quad, and it was beyond my comprehension. It was warm and smooth, sweet and bready, and ultimately life-changing. I knew I was holding something important. The rest of the night descends into a warm haze, fading out into round after round after round. I would get on the train back to my small student apartment, my life unknowingly altered.

Fast forward three and a half years. It’s a crisp September night and I’m standing on a side street in the Shibuya prefecture in Tokyo. After a laborious search aided by luck, portable wifi, and google maps, I’ve found my way to the Mikkeller’s newest taproom. It shines out with the same warm glow of Copenhagen, and I go inside and make my way to the bar.

The bartender is a pleasant foreigner, but speaks thoughtful Japanese to the other patrons. She acknowledges me through her large, hip glasses in English. Both she and I know that I do not speak any Japanese, and she saves us the mutual awkwardness of me trying. I order a Spontanlingonberry. It’s tart, but not overly so, and has a sparkling sweetness from the fruit. It’s beautifully red and finishes clean and far too quickly.

Next is the Arh Hvad, a soft Belgian aged in Grand Marnier barrels. It’s smooth and delicately boozy, like a well-aged bourbon. I feel myself start to warm up inside and take in the bar. It has that same clean Hygge feeling as Copenhagen, intimate and cozy but clean and uncomplicated. In many ways Denmark and Japan feel oddly similar. There’s an order to things that feels the same as Copenhagen. Despite being a terrifyingly large and dense city, Tokyo is clean and orderly with surprisingly Scandinavian-feeling neighborhoods and a sense of calm that settles over it at night away from the Neon of Roppongi or Shinjuku.

At this point I am joined at the bar by two Ex-pats, one is a tall and lanky Englishman, the other a stout Scot. We bond over the universal language of beer, and I drink the Udagawa Spontanale, a refreshingly tart gueuze made specifically for this location. It’s light and playful, and just funky enough to give is a deeper character. I try to nurse it as best I can, but I find my glass empty before I notice. The Scot and I order another beer while our English friend talks to the bartender. I get a Raspberries and Cream, and again find it dangerously drinkable. It’s creamy and well-bodied, with just enough raspberry to let you know it’s there, and a light vanilla that gives it a soda-like quality. It is gone within minutes, and at this point it is nearly midnight and I am pleasantly buzzed. The bar is closing, and the Scot and I decide to head to another bar down the street.

We head to a small izakaya a few blocks away. It reminds me of a study or the office of a dean at a very expensive private college, with dark wood and leather chairs. The Scot and I split a bottle of Mikkeller Beer Geek Dessert. An hour and some very fine bourbon later, I begin the massive walk back to my hotel. The trains are no longer running, cabs are expensive, and it is a quiet and beautiful night. I am pleasantly drunk, and I allow myself to become reflective.

After all, I’m walking down a street on the other side of the world snacking on onigiri purchased from a 7/11, and the root of that is one beer in 2012. I have a tendency to get overly passionate about beer because it’s become such a huge part of my life and I know how impactful the little moments around it can be. It’s the face my girlfriend makes when she takes a sip of something she loves. It’s my roommate and I sitting outside on cold winter days homebrewing. It’s making a friend on the other side of the world because you both love something and you’ve shared it with each other.

I make it back to my hotel exhausted and happy. It’s at least three in the morning, but it is not the first time the staff has seen me sheepishly stumble in. I attempt to write in my composition book, then make a cup of tea that I will never drink and collapse into the bed with a feeling of immense satisfaction. All of my nights with Mikkeller bars retain a surreal quality to them in that even the smallest moments feel momentous in a way that makes me take stock of my entire life and rate it firmly in the positive.

Should you find yourself in a city with a Mikkeller bar, make the effort to find it. Take in the warmth and savor each sip. In them you’ll find what I believe to be the true essence of craft beer- experimentation and collaboration, joy and passion, and friendship based around common love.

 

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Sam Otterbourg is a North Carolina native living in Durham.

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