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Friday, Aug. 20, 2010

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August Beer Club in Roppongi


Beers that taste great in August

In this punishing heat, a lot of people complain they have lost all appetite for food. We say: Change your definition of the word "food." At this time of year, we gain a significant proportion of our nourishment from that most essential of food groups: beer.

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Beers for any month: Five craft beers are served on tap at August Beer Club, including the Maduro dark pilsner (below), here served with a basket of beer-batter Helda bean fritters. ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS
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We have little time for the empty calories of fizzy, tasteless mass-market lager (and none at all for happoshu and all other canned "frankenbeers"). But we can linger at great length — and often do — with flagons of wholesome craft ales brewed with integrity and character. During this long, hot summer one of our favorite places for doing so has been the aptly named August Beer Club.

There are five compelling reasons for making your way to this casual, unprepossessing, glass-fronted hangout on the Hiroo side of Roppongi. You will find them being dispensed from the gleaming taps that adorn the small bar just inside the front door.

Start your exploration with the eponymous August Beer, a light, easy-drinking pilsner that's perfect for quenching your initial thirst. Like all the beers here, it's unpasteurized, giving it enough zing and character that you won't feel the need to stuff a wedge of lime in it. The dark Maduro is in a similar vein, but brewed with roasted hops to impart a deeper hue and taste.

August (it's pronounced in the German way, something like "ow-goose") Beer Club does not actually produce these pilsners itself. Instead it gets them contract-made by a small brewery in Fukushima Prefecture. While they're both well worth trying — especially if you are planning on eating as well — it's the other three beers on tap that draw us back.

First is a Belgian-style white beer called Snow Blanche, which has a refreshing, light citrus undertone that has been especially welcome in the recent heat wave. Then there is the delectable Extra Pils, a rich, dark pilsner with a full-bodied flavor best savored as a digestif, sipped slowly at the end of a session.

But our favorite of all is the beer called simply Toshi's IPA. This excellent ale is produced by award-winning brewmaster Toshi Ishii, best known as the man who developed Yona Yona, Tokyo Porter and other fine beers for the pioneering Yaho Brewing Company in Nagano Prefecture.

Now working independently, his latest offering is another classic. Lemony gold in color and slightly cloudy, it is closer in inspiration to the original India pale ales in Britain than the stridently bitter, hop-driven genre that has developed among North American microbrewers. Instead it boasts the kind of rounded, well-balanced flavor — yes, and nutritiousness — that makes us want to quaff on it all evening long.

Despite the name, August Beer Club is far from a typical pub. The look is coffee-shop casual, with comfortable seating and no standing areas, except for two small tables on the sidewalk outside. Instead of making your way to the bar, you order from the waiters. But perhaps the biggest difference from the burgeoning British, Irish or Belgian pubs around town is the handsome pizza oven right in the center of the dining room.

Like the oven itself, the pizzas are scaled down in size — no one with a vigorous appetite will be satisfied with just one — and they are gas- rather than wood-fired. We haven't yet worked our way through the full range (a dozen in all), but the Summer Margherita (¥1,200), made with fresh buffalo mozzarella and cherry tomatoes rather than just red sauce, is especially good. We are also fans of the "bruschetta" (¥1,200), fresh-baked plain pizza dough served with a choice of dipping sauces instead of toppings.

The slogan on August Beer Club's logo proclaims "Place For Toast." We didn't spot that on the food menu, but we have been very impressed by everything else we have tried. Besides the obvious "pub grub" fare — such as French fries (¥500 or ¥780), fish and chips (¥1,000) or chili con carne with tortilla chips (¥650 or ¥980) — the kitchen produces several dishes worthy of any proper restaurant.

The carpaccio salad (¥800), made with line-caught horse mackerel from Kagoshima Prefecture, was colorful and well dressed. There's a tasty terrine of pork and beef tongue (¥750). We also liked the spicy roast chicken (¥1,380). And recently we were very impressed by the carbonnade (¥2,100), a Belgian style of cooking beef cheek, simmered down in the dark August Maduro beer until it is rich and impossibly tender.

But the best thing we've eaten there is one of the current summer specials. Fritters of Helda beans (¥750), a plump, flat Italian variety of runner bean (known here as morokko ingen), deep fried in a light, crisp beer batter and served with a green vegetable-based dipping sauce.

Having food of this quality is a sixth and clinching reason why it's worth knowing August Beer Club — in this or any other month of the year.

August Beer Club
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Location: 3-2-21 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku
(03) 6804-1655

Open: Daily 12 noon-11 p.m.

Nearest station: Roppongi (Hibiya Line)

How to get there: From Roppongi Station (exit 1C), make your way to the front entrance of the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Continue walking down the street (formerly known as Terebi-Asahi-dori) in the direction of Hiroo. August Beer Club is on the right after about 100 meters.

What works: Righteous craft beer; good food.

What doesn't: If only there was a proper beer garden.

Number of seats: 45

Smoking: Only allowed outside

Price per head: Weekday lunch from ¥850; evening snacks from ¥600; pizza from ¥750

Drinks: Beer from ¥500; cocktails ¥650; wine from ¥650/glass, from ¥3,800/bottle; shochu from ¥650/glass

Credit cards: Credit cards: Major cards accepted

Language: Japanese/English menu; English spoken

Reservations: Phone ahead in case it's booked for a function.

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