Swan Lake Beer (スワンレイクビール)
Swan Lake is a brewery in Niigata that doesn’t necessarily have a set lineage or style (in contrast to say Fujizakura Heights, who are very firmly German-style). In fact, they started out as a wedding and event venue, but then became interested in beer and started brewing! When they first started out they had an American brewer help guide them, so while I suppose you can say they are nominally American-style their regular lineup consists of a porter, an amber, a weizen, a golden ale and a rice lager. They don’t also have a huge range of beers they produce, with a few seasonals per year that they make. They do, however, make fairly good beer overall, with some excellent ones among them.
The big black mark against Swan Lake is their insane pricing. Even on their official shopping site a standard 330mL bottle of their Amber Swan Ale goes for 600 yen without tax, and the Porter is 700 yen without tax. Seasonals? Run you even more – I paid 860 yen for the Gray Stout. Special seasonals? 1075 yen for the Imperial Stout!
On tap the story doesn’t really get much better if you go to their taprooms. You’ll pay at least 980 yen for 500mL of any of their beers on tap, and some seasonals will cost more. And guest beers at their taprooms cost even more – I’m looking at the current menu for the SwanLake PubEdo right now, and they are charging 1300 yen for 500mL of the Tamamura Honten Wheat Ale! I bought a bottle of this a few weeks ago for less than 450 yen, so they are definitely on the high side when it comes to pricing.
It’s not all bad news, though – they make some decent beers, and if you go to other craft beer bars not run by Swan Lake, you can find their beer on tap at normal prices. So with that in mind let’s go through their beers a bit.
While they don’t have a strong stylistic bent, I find that they do a pretty good job with dark beers. Their Imperial Stout is awesome, a definite contender for best imperial stout in Japan. Their Black IPA would also be a contender for best-of-breed here, although it must be said that black IPAs are not all that common here yet. The Gray Stout is an interesting beer, and the Porter is solid if not spectacular.
Among non-dark beers, their Amber Swan Ale is quite excellent – if bottles weren’t so expensive this would be a nice one to drink regularly. The IPA maybe doesn’t quite match up to other top IPAs here but is a good IPA, and the oddly-named #B-IPA Belgian IPA is also a pretty interesting one.
In terms of distribution, bottles are not all that common. A few bottle shops around Tokyo have the regulars, and I know of only two that carry seasonals (Liquors Hasegawa and Tanakaya). As far as on tap, among the regulars, the Amber Swan Ale and the Porter show up at various craft beer bars fairly regularly, but the other regulars are very rare (probably due to their lack of general popularity). The seasonals are also usually carried by those same bars (outside of the taprooms usually Craft Beer Market, Popeye, and Ant’n’Bee seem to have Swan Lake around regularly), so if you are really interested in their beer you shouldn’t have much trouble finding them on tap around Tokyo (plug for our taplists here).
Speaking of their taprooms, in addition to the restaurant they operate at the brewery in Niigata, they also operate two taprooms in Tokyo called Pub Edo. The first one they opened is just south of the Yaesu side of Tokyo Station, and they just opened another one recently by Yoyogi Uehara. I have only been to the Tokyo one, and in addition to their high prices I don’t find the atmosphere to be all that inspiring, so I don’t frequent it very often. If you check their taplists though you will find that they sometimes offer beer that is hard to find elsewhere, such as barrel-aged versions of their imperial stout or previous year versions of their imperial stout. It’s probably worth checking out at least once.
Swan Lake is a solid brewery, with at least a few excellent beers. However, they don’t experiment much and don’t come up with new stuff so often, so it’s hard to expect anything more of them down the road – they are what they are. Bottles and the taprooms are expensive, but if you can find their beers on tap at a non-Swan Lake-operated bar, that would be a good time to check them out.
Beers we like:
- Amber Swan Ale (RateBeer)
Places to buy in Tokyo:
- Regular beers can be found at Liquors Hasegawa, and sometimes Le Collier and Nomono
- Limited beers can be found at Liquors Hasegawa and Tanakaya