While slurping up a bowl of shoyu ramen on a chilly November evening in Manhattan, I noticed a craft beer list that would put most bars to shame. The dozens of bottle, can, and draft options ran the gamut from rum barrel-aged imperial stouts to farmhouse saisons, with a special emphasis on New York heavy-hitters like Evil Twin, Nightmare Brewing, Threes Brewing, and Grimm Artisanal Ales.
The ramen joint in question belongs to Ivan Orkin, whose life-long noodle obsession has led to multiple restaurants, a Chef’s Table episode, and two cookbooks, Ivan Ramen: Love, Obsession, and Recipes from Tokyo's Most Unlikely Noodle Joint and The Gaijin Cookbook: Japanese Recipes from a Chef, Father, Eater, and Lifelong Outsider. As one of the few non-Japanese chefs to break into the hyper-competitive ramen scene, Orkin has made a career of doing things his own way. He opened his first ramen shop in Tokyo in 2006, where he made waves by filling bowls with earthy rye flour noodles and topping them with roasted tomatoes.
“To me, ramen is a maverick cuisine. With tempura and sushi and kaiseki, there are so many rules,” Orkin says. “With ramen, there aren’t really rules and nobody will tell you their secret way to make it. It just has to be delicious. When I opened my shop in Tokyo, I knew people would come to check it out because I was a weird guy from New York, but I also knew that if it wasn’t good, they’d never come back.”
To him, that rule-breaking approach applies to beer pairings as well. In Japan, where stringent regulations have rendered home brewing illegal, craft beer has been slow to take off. Much like Germany, which heavily influenced modern Japanese brewing traditions, high-quality macro lagers and pilsners still dominate the market. While you can find plenty of hazy IPAs in Tokyo these days, the options on the vending machine at your average ramen shop are generally limited.
“In Japan, a restaurant opens and chooses one kind of beer to sell, usually Kirin, Asahi, or Sapporo,” Orkin says. “That beer is lovingly maintained by the brewers. They come by regularly to make sure your lines are clean and the temp is right and you’re pouring it correctly.”
To me, ramen is a maverick cuisine. There aren’t really rules and nobody will tell you their secret way to make it. It just has to be delicious.”
When coming up with the beverage program for his first ramen shop in New York, however, Orkin opted to take a different approach. Given that thousands of craft breweries mean beer-lovers in the U.S. have near-infinite options, he saw no reason not to let diners follow their own individual palates.
“If you want to match ramen with the absolute perfect beer, it’s probably a Japanese lager, but why can’t you have a lambic or a gose?” Orkin says. “A sommelier might say, ‘Absolutely not, you have to go with this one,’ but I’m not really into that. If you love an oatmeal stout, go for it.”
Still, certain styles of been, such as food-friendly pilsners, kellerbiers and sours, have a special affinity for ramen. Whether it’s lard-loaded tonkotsu topped with a glistening slab of pork belly chashu or an especially lush bowl of chicken paitan, ramen requires a certain richness in order to attain its transcendent rib-sticking, euphoria-inducing quality. Like pizza, it tends to pair well with anything crisp or acidic that can cut through the fat.
“Ramen that’s not fatty and salty loses something. It’s like if someone said, ‘Hey, I made you a low-fat hamburger with no calories,’” Orkin says. “That’s why burgers and ramen are just so satisfying.”
While I love craft beer, when I’m in Japan, an ice-cold Asahi or Suntory is just about perfect. I’ve been in the ramen game for a long time and I’m still astounded by how well they match.”
Orkin prides himself on offering a carefully curated, ever-expanding selection of beers that can hold their own against his umami-crammed bowls. Staff beer tastings and brewery tours have become regular occurrences, to the point where anyone working the bar at Ivan Ramen's Clinton Street location can expound at length about coolships and sours made with foraged wild yeast. In the process, the kitchen team has formed lasting relationships with their friendly, neighborhood breweries.
“It’s not just that beer pairs well with ramen, we also found that our relationship with these brewers has enhanced our lives and made it richer,” Orkin says. “It’s a really interesting relationship between chefs and brewers. A lot of these guys are young, creative, and ambitious.”
That sense of kinship between the two industries is so strong that Orkin even collaborated on a beer with Mikkeller. Ivan Ramen to Biiru is a bright, clean kellerbier that can keep any bowl of spicy miso in check. The beer is popular enough that Orkin’s team made a pop-up appearance at Mikkeller’s ramen joint in Copenhagen’s Vesterbro neighborhood last year.
Yet while Orkin himself has enthusiastically embraced innovation in both the craft beer and ramen spheres, he maintains a deep-rooted respect for Japanese tradition. After all, as a gaijin, or “foreigner,” his role as a rule-breaker has always been contingent on learning the rules in the first place. Especially when returning to Tokyo, he often finds himself drawn to the classics.
“While I love craft beer, when I’m in Japan, an ice-cold Asahi or Suntory is just about perfect,” Orkin. “The head is always just so and it magically pairs with Japanese food. I’ve been in the ramen game for a long time and I’m still astounded by how well they match."