I find Swan Lake seasonals to be mostly good quality (although overpriced, like everything they do), so when I came across their Gray Stout for the first time I decided to give it a try. Of course, a concept of a gray stout is also a bit unusual, so that caught my eye as well (more on that in the review). In keeping with thematic reviews I’m pairing it with their standard Swan Lake Porter, which if memory serves is a very solid porter. So first, the Gray Stout:
Swan Lake Gray Stout
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Very rich pour, oily, jet black, not much head
Aroma – Roasted coffee, sugar stays in the nose, slight hint of banana
Flavor – Nutty chocolate is strong, but gives way to a yeast floral flavor. Finish is roasty bitter.
If the review notes (particularly the aroma and flavor) seem like an odd jumble, well, that’s kind of what the beer is, although I would say that in a good way. I can’t seem to find much information about this beer online, so we’ll have to rely on the label. First of all, the label says it is a Belgian-Style Dark Ale, but it behaves more like a regular stout than a Belgian. I would expect a Belgian dark to be fairly heavy on the spicy/sweet, whereas this is closer to a stout in the sense that it emphasizes the roasted/chocolatey aspects more.
In the description of the beer on the label. it says they used roasted malts with Belgian yeast: black malts + white yeast = gray stout. Certainly it carries through some of the fruity and funky yeast aspects of the Belgian yeast, although the roasted malts are more prominent in both the aroma and the flavor. It’s a bit of an unusual beer for Japan, and I can easily see how some may prefer a more standard stout. Personally though, I found this beer to be fairly complex and interesting, and while the price (860 yen at Liquors Hasegawa) probably precludes me from buying it again it’s a good one.
Swan Lake Porter
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Black, somewhat carbonated but settles down quickly enough
Aroma – Mild roast chocolate, not very strong but pleasant, faint hops.
Flavor – Slight bitterness, smooth and drinkable but not too exciting. Mild roast, nice coffee bitter finish.
I don’t see this a lot with craft brewers in the West, but in Japan it’s not uncommon for breweries to market beers by boasting about awards won in beer competitions. As far as I can tell, most of these awards are meaningless and most of the beer competitions themselves are suspect. For example, with the Swan Lake Porter, on the neck label it proudly displays victories at the World Beer Cup from 2000 to 2006 (quite a long time ago, come to think of it) in the Robust Porter category. However, a quick glance at the Wikipedia page (here) mentions that it is mostly American brewers and it is pay-to-play, and judging by the winners list for 2014 (here) it’s probably safe to say to that this competition is not necessarily the most definitive.
On the Swan Lake home page, the International Beer Cup is also mentioned prominently as a guarantor of quality for the Swan Lake Porter. Unfortunately, a quick visit to the International Beer Cup 2014 page (here) reveals that not only is it also pay-to-play but that historically it has been mostly Japanese beers, and only recently has begun to attract brewers from other countries! Kind of like that old joke about it being called the World Series when only American teams are invited. A quick scan of the winners also reveals that there are winners from other unlikely hotbeds of craft beer like Korea, Taiwan, and China, so you can come up with your own conclusions about the meaningfulness of this competition.
So does it deserve all of these “world” awards? It’s a solid porter, but nothing to write home about. It’s been a while since I had this one, and it was better in my memory – this time around I found it very mild, a bit too mild, although the coffee bitter finish is nice. Depending on how bold you want your porters to be, I would much rather go with the Baird Kurofune Porter for a readily-available standard porter in Japan, which is certainly more flavorful but also highly drinkable. I certainly wouldn’t avoid the Swan Lake Porter, but at the usual Swan Lake prices (I bought this one at Le Collier for 760 yen) I can’t really recommend it as being worth buying.
Comparing these two beers, the Gray Stout is a lot more interesting than the porter, although both are hurt by the absurd Swan Lake pricing (we haven’t done a Swan Lake review yet but if we do I’m sure pricing will play a prominent role). The Gray Stout is very interesting (as many of their seasonals are), and the Swan Lake Porter is a decent enough but not overly ambitious beer. The pricing is very unfortunate, as especially with the Gray Porter it isn’t spectacular enough to warrant paying so much for it, but good enough that I would buy again if slightly less exorbitant.