Maltheads, Sapporo

Here I am again. At Maltheads, Sapporo. And it’s not much better (maybe worse?) than the last time.

As we work on our list of the best Sapporo beer bars, we wanted to check out Maltheads; a small craft beer bar near the far eastern edge of Tanukikouji.

It has a cool name, right? Maltheads, I like that. I was excited to come here.

Based mostly on the name alone, we came by for the first time on a Sunday about 7 PM. It is a small place and on that particular night it was full. We poked our head in, and we heard “sumimasen…” (sorry), full house. “Okay, desu,” we thought, we’ll try another time. We walked across the street and had another truly excellent meal of tacos at El Tope (which is right across the street, and after getting blown out at “Malties” it was a truly excellent consolation prize.

Okay, so our first night included some bad luck; a busy time on a busy night. Nobody’s fault. It is true, though, that as an American I am not used to being turned away from a bar. In the US, when it’s busy, you pack in, you stand the whole time, you have to wait a while for your next beer; things get crowded, but you’re rarely turned away. But in Japan, if they’re full, they make a “sad face,” and basically tell you to go away. They don’t really want you to wait, or even offer that as an option. The “we’re busy, please go away” does seem like a real cultural difference.

So it was that tonight we return for “take II” at Maltheads in Sapporo. This time, it’s Friday night, also around 7 PM. I once again make the journey into the rather nice, cleaned-up basement of this building. Once again, I locate the Maltheads bar, and push open the wooden door. And this time, there are only two other people in there. Two people drinking beers, and also… “Mr Friendly,” the bartender (I hear he may in fact be the owner).

“Looks like I won’t be turned away tonight,” I thought. But maybe it would have been better if I had been.

Mr Friendly is a Japanese guy, maybe 50, 55 years old? On the night we “met,” he wore a button down shirt, sleeves rolled up, and a red-white-blue tie around his neck. He makes the international sign for “one person?” with a finger and I agree. Did he frown as I said “yes?” Maybe he did. He makes a less-than-warm gesture to a seat at the bar… and I take it. At this point, I am still excited to be there. I am smiling. I thank him. And I’m still very much in the mood for a delicious beer.

There are eight seats, total, at Maltheads (and two other extra chairs pushed up against the corner). On this particular night, I am in seat #5 (in terms of distance from the door).

Mr Friendly brings me a menu, the otsumami (the little snack that comes with the fee to sit down), and delivers all this with a icy vibe. He opens the menu and says some things in Japanese I mostly don’t understand. And that is my fault… as a foreigner, the responsibility to learn and understand the language is mine and mine alone. He then gestures to the big refrigerator with the clear glass windows; a small inventory of craft beer lies behind the glass.

I say something to indicate I’d like a draft beer (and I would). The nice Japanese guy next to me (he is in seat #4) tries to help me out; “Pilsner, lager, pale ale” he manages to say. He is a good guy; wearing a modest suit, lools to be here for some suds after work, good vibe. I was grateful for the help.

If you look carefully, the second line in the picture above says: “This is all the draught beer I have. Other beers are bottle beers.” This was not obvious to me at the time. Perhaps that is also my fault. If you read down that page, you’ll see Maltheads has exactly three beers on tap; a pilsner, a lager, and a pale ale. My Japanese friend’s intel was solid there, certainly.

But if you know this blog, you’ll know I am “typical American” in that I like a good IPA (Is that “typical?” It is, in craft beer circles.). And I don’t really go to bars to drink beer out of can (I can do that at home), but… that is my option if I want an IPA at Maltheads.

It is at this point that I start to realize that on a second page of the non-standard menu I am looking at, there is a section that refers to the various choices of cans and bottles in that refrigerator. “The menu” doesn’t have specific beer choices, but is trying to communicate the ‘fridge is organized by style or type of beer, literally saying “this shelf has lager, this shelf has…” It’s more of a map than a menu.

Your choices are: Light, “wheat” (whatever that means), low-hop, high-hop (I do know what that means), cider/fruits, malty/dark, sours (not my favorite, but I know what those are too), high alcohol, etc.

I can see the refrigerator. I am just smart enough to know I want something on the shelf that correlates to the “high hop” shelf, there are several choices… I am eight feet away and can’t even read the labels. I ask for a recommendation (and I ask in Japanese, “osususmeh,” because my Japanese is not good, but I do try, I really do try), and…

Mr Friendly refuses. He tells me “no.” He looks considerable irritated at having been asked to pick one for me. It is my choice. Yeah, thanks man. He does all this in the same discouraging tone he used when he sat me down.

I am actually fine with confrontation. If he had suggested we fight, I might have agreed to that (and liked him more for it). As it was, he was just being ride and unfriendly. Almost aggressively so, and in a way that makes your curious exactly what would inspire him to be hostile on a first visit like this. Does he not like customers?

I have been to bars where the rudeness is part of the charm. I am thinking of Toronado Pub in the Lower Haight. It’s baseball, and loud punk rock blaring from low quality speakers, the tenders can be impatient and actively rude, but… that is place is cool in a way Maltheads and Mr Friendly will never be.

I wanted to leave. But just for you, our dear readers I stayed… and rode out the abuse.

As I can’t read the cans from across the room, and Mr Friendly doesn’t have the social skill to be decent and even try to communicate with his customers, I arbitrarily choose the can on the far right, knowing absolutely nothing about it, only because it’s was easy to point to. My choice turns out to be “Spring Thrills,” an IPA from Pizza Port Brewing Company, in sunny Carlsbad California. I like Carlsbad. It’s a surf town near San Diego. Great spot. I wish I was there right now, instead of here in this little bar, enduring Mr Friendly.

As I announce what I want, Mr Friendly frowns. There is no winning with him. I once again think the whole night would be better, and more enjoyable, if he would climb over the bar and just punch me in the face, and then we could get it on… and I could channel my dissatisfaction into a beating or a beatdown (although & am pretty sure I could take this punk). But he doesn’t do that, he is just agitated and sour, and reluctantly opens my 16 oz can into a 14.5 oz pint glass.

I would have preferred to just drink it out of the can… but in case it isn’t obvious by now; Mr Friendly doesn’t not care what you want.

As I always do, I ask for a water. He seems to say yes and register irritation at the same time. “No ice,” I say (in Japanese. I swear I do try). I am plenty displeased with him and his sour beer dungeon, but I am still being polite (at this point). He manages to make me think he doesn’t understand… he is clearly just being difficult. He brings me my water. And at that point, my patience and good will have completely expired.

Can I recommend this place? No. This place sucks. You could do so much better… even if you’re here on a night Mr Friendly is home kicking his dog, or whatever he does on his night off.

It’s too bad, really; the bar is small, but could be nice. A wood bar, and more wood on one of the walls. Comfortable lighting. The crowd was my Japanese buddy, two women, and a couple that came in after I was already dreaming of a brall with the bar keep. Despite the English name, it feels like a local Japanese bar. And all that was fine with me, and could be, if only the bar could somehow find itself under “new management.”

For the record, maybe 50% of beer I saw pored at Maltheads that night was Sapporo Classic. Which is a good beer, I drink it at home, but I would not come here to drink it.

And the music was good. Down-tempo, acid-jazz. It felt ironic to listen to Western music, in a Western-named bar, where I felt dissed for being… well, who knows, but something Mr Friendly didn’t want in his bar.

Sapporo is the best city in the world, but Maltheads is up there with the worst experiences I have ever had in Sapporo.

I am going to pay my tab now… and I’ll be back, but only if Mr Friendly agrees to a a cage March, and I can pay him back for all the “love” he showed me tonight.

The bill by the way, for my one IPA (from a can) and the compulsory snack was ¥1800. You can do better than that in this city, I promise. In fact, I recommend you try Beer Cellar, or Beer Kotan, or the ever classic and friendly Beer Inn Mugishitei; all of which are cooler, have a better selection, and better pricing. I am quite happy to turn this review into an advertisement for his competition.

Sayonara, Maltheads. Nice place, bad vibe.

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