America, it must be said, is not known for its beer. At best, the US produces insipid lager-like brews, meant to be thrown down the hatch and forgotten about. The plethora of Belgian beer bars in Tokyo attests to that nation’s specialty; America, on the other hand, is reduced to the dregs.
Tell that to Bamboo. Focusing almost solely on US beers—with the token Sankt Gallen or other jibiru on tap—this Shinjuku pub hosts an ever-changing selection of draft beers and a small, though well-curated, bottled beer selection. The offerings tend to be the IPAs and other hoppy styles, mostly from the Pacific Northwest. Bottled beers include, among others, selections from Rogue Brewery, Stone Brewing Co., and Southern Tier, which makes a mean double IPA.
The ambience is reminiscent of your grandfather’s house—in the best sense. Though lacking in the darts and billiards of childhood (sadly), there are random knickknacks lying on the counter and books lined up on the shelf. It’s a bar more homey than stylish, with only a scattering of tables and some seats at the counter. Food options are limited—nuts, sausages and the like from ¥500—but you’re welcome to bring your own food.
Although Sasaki-san, the bartender-cum-manager, is shy about speaking English (he understands more than he lets on), he’s confident about the beer he serves. If you speak any Japanese at all, you can rely on him for excellent recommendations. Upon being told that we weren’t fans of Cascade hops—commonly used in American IPAs—he was able to direct us to a beer that suited our palate. And if you happen to be from the US, Sasaki-san will gladly look up in his atlas where you are from and all the local breweries from that area (in the case of Connecticut, sadly lacking, alas).
But, ultimately, it’s all about the beer. There are always a few standouts on tap; on our first visit, it was an IPA from Niigata-based Swan Lake Brewery. This was a first-time batch from the brewery, and they knocked it out of the park. A bit hoppy, balanced with sweetness, it was refreshing and eminently drinkable. Current offerings include Red Rocket Ale—cascade-y, astringent, and bitter, it’s stronger than most beers of its type, and at 6.8 percent alcohol, barely claims kinship with other amber ales. There’s hardly any trace of sweetness, as is commonly found in ambers; instead, it’s akin to British bitter-style strong ales. Also currently on offer is Bear Republic’s Racer X Imperial IPA, which soon proved a favorite for the evening. Bitter, but balanced with an underlying sweetness and topped by citrusy notes, it finished with a refreshing hoppy aftertaste. Definitely a welcoming beer for IPA fans and converts alike, it did prove slightly dangerous, ringing in at 8.3 percent alcohol.
Most pints at Bamboo run in the ¥1,000 range, with ¥800 for half-pints and all sizes of Guinness ¥600 on Mondays. There are non-beer choices, including wine, grapefruit juice and standard cocktails. But try one of the American brews—it will be an education.