We haven’t looked at any Japanese amber ales yet, so let’s take our first look today. There are a few out there in Japan that I like (Swan Lake has a very nice one, Aqula has a Kodaimai Amber that is nice but not available in bottles, and actually the regular SanktGallen Amber Ale is pretty good), but I haven’t had any of these that we’re trying today so let’s see how they rate.
SanktGallen Kita Kamakura no Megumi (北鎌倉の恵み)
Availability: Year-round (but only generally locally available in Kamakura)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Reddish amber, moderate carbonation sticks around a while
Aroma – Very very faint caramel malt aroma
Flavor – Heavy barley flavor to it, slight caramel sweetness on the finish, very fizzy, strange medicinal funk in the middle of the flavor progression that tastes a bit off
This beer has an interesting little backstory to it – it is essentially one of those machizukuri projects that we touched upon a bit in our Sasazuka Beer review. This particular project is managed by the Kita Kamakura Yusui Network, whose main aim is to promote awareness and conservation of the Kita Kamakura Rokkoku Kenzan (北鎌倉六国見山) area, especially by focusing on the springs and water sources around there.
Accordingly, this beer is brewed using the local water from Kita Kamakura. Interestingly, this is actually the second incarnation of this beer. The first edition was a pale ale brewed by Yokohama Beer, but due to some internal issues Yokohama Beer was not able to continue brewing the beer. The Kita Kamakura Yusui Network wanted to keep the project alive though, and so they decided on SanktGallen as the successor to carry the torch, and so SanktGallen now brew this Amber Ale as part of the project. Incidentally, part of the proceeds of this beer are also donated to the National Trust for conservation work.
The water used, as mentioned above, is local from Kita Kamakura, and one of the noteworthy aspects of the water is that it is hard water, as opposed to most of the water sources in Japan. Hard water can impart a certain amount of bitterness to the flavor and is said to be good for brewing pale ales and such, whereas soft water might be more suited to brewing lagers.
And since this is an amber ale, the hard water should be of great benefit, right? I don’t know what kind of water that SanktGallen uses for their other beers, but this amber ale here is actually not very good. Water may be a very important ingredient, but I think they’ve missed the rest of the recipe by quite a bit. There isn’t much hops or bitterness, and the grain flavor isn’t really a nice malty flavor but more just straight-up barley. There’s also a very noticeable medicinal quality to it that is off-putting. In short, not one of their better efforts.
In terms of availability, this beer is generally only sold locally at a few stores around Kamakura. I bought mine at the Isetan Craft Beer Fair a couple of weeks ago, but I haven’t seen it anywhere else so you may not be able to track this down so readily – of course, it’s not a great beer so probably not worth the effort anyway.
Let’s hope the Michinoku Fukushima Red Ale fares better.
Michinoku Fukushima Beer Red Ale (みちのく福島路ビールレッドエール)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Mild carbonation, brown-amber
Aroma – Nice whiff of hops, strong malt and caramel aroma as well, nice, surprising slight roast chocolate stout-like smell
Flavor – Some caramel, spritzy, a bit of roast on the finish, overall a bit bland
Michinoku Fukushima Beer are relatively minor in the craft beer world here – their bottles are pretty rare, and so are their kegs. In fact, this is the first beer I am trying from them. They’ve actually been brewing since 1997, and although they started out as a German-style brewery with the help of a Kirin brewer they’ve since expanded into other styles as well, including this one.
Of course, being from Fukushima, it’s hard to not be associated with the Tohoku earthquake and the ensuing radiation fears, which were not totally unfounded. If you read that profile linked above in the Japan Beer Times (link here again), they say that they lost about half of their customers after the earthquake. Since the disaster they test not only the beers they produce for radiation but also the ingredients that go into their beers, and they publish the results of their tests on their homepage to reassure customers of their safety.
One other minor note – they call their beer a red ale, but RateBeer categorizes it as an amber ale. Unless the beer is an Irish Red Ale, an American Amber Ale and an American Red Ale are stylistically the same, and Beer Advocate lumps them together as one category. As a relatively recent style with fairly wide style and color guidelines, there’s room for flexibility, and the BJCP style guide for amber ales also notes that while usually referred to as an amber ale sometimes red ale is also used.
So on to the beer itself! The aroma is fantastic – it’s got hops, malts, caramel, and even some roast to it, especially as it warms up. Unfortunately, the flavor never lives up to the aroma. While the caramel is retained in the flavor, as is the slight roasted aspect (which is great for an amber), overall it ends up being somewhat bland. It could definitely use more malt character and more hops to balance out the caramel spritz, although I wouldn’t say that this is a terrible effort.
As I mentioned before, they aren’t too popular of a brewery, and they focus mostly on local distribution. This particular beer was purchased at Tokyo Liquor Land, but I should also note that it was definitely not cheap – with tax a whopping 682 yen! It’s probably worth trying once if you’re not familiar with their beers, but objectively it isn’t worth the cost, and there are certainly many other better beers you could by for much cheaper.
Rogue Ales American Amber Ale
Package: 12 fl oz bottle
Misc: IBU – 53
Pour – Deep red/amber, mild carbonation, settles down quickly
Aroma – Very mild aroma, sugar, some hops on the nose
Flavor – Initially malts, then transitions to caramel followed by a bitter finish, finish stays a while
I’ve only had one Rogue beer before, and it was the excellent excellent Rogue Farms Dirtoir Black Lager. I hadn’t known too much about them, so it was surprising to read that they seem to not only be downhill in terms of producing great beers, but they are widely lambasted as mean-spirited, impossible to work for, union-busting, and greedy. There’s plenty of material out there on Rogue so I’ll let you come to your own conclusions.
As for Rogue American Amber, this was first brewed in 1988 and happens to be dedicated to the US Armed Forces. For what it’s worth, it regularly makes lists of top patriotic beers to drink for the 4th of July.
Moving on to the beer, regardless of whatever other issues they may have, this amber ale is far more interesting than the two local examples we tried today. Although in terms of the aroma I found the Michinoku Fukushima example to have bolder aromas that were a nice combination, the flavors on the Rogue are much more complex and strong, and it goes through a nice progression that lets you enjoy the malts, caramel and bitterness in its various stages. It’s also a visually appealing beer with the deep red color.
Distribution-wise, I wonder if Rogue’s reputation precedes them a bit or impedes local distribution here in some way. Given the size and scale of Rogue, they’re surprisingly rare – bottles I’ve only seen at Tokyo Liquor Land (which is where I got this one, at an affordable 473 yen) and Liquors Hasegawa (although they don’t carry much of Rogue), and on tap I’ve only seem them once at the Two Dogs pizza joint in Roppongi. Again, very surprising for a brewery the size of Rogue.
Looking at the three all together, the Rogue Ales American Amber Ale was the clear winner, but the Michinoku Fukushima Beer Red Ale, while the flavor wasn’t quite there, had quite an interesting aroma, even more so than the Rogue. The SanktGallen Kita Kamakura no Megumi, though, didn’t have much to offer and was definitely inferior to the other offerings. I’m interested in seeing what else Michinoku Fukushima has to offer, and Rogue, well, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve had from them so far, but without passing judgment too hastily it seems clear that their business practices (and general attitude) are certainly worth looking into more.