Oyster stout! Oysters are kind of a big deal in Japan, so it’s not too surprising that we see more oyster stouts here than you might expect given that they’re not too common in the US and Europe. Today we’ve got one the best known oyster stouts (and a personal favorite of mine) here in the Iwate Kura Oyster Stout, and new beer from a new brewery – the Songbird Peaty Oyster Stout.
Iwate Kura Oyster Stout (いわて蔵ビール・三陸広田湾産牡蠣のスタウト)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Very dark, almost black, mild carbonation that stays a while
Aroma – Roast, slight chocolate, if you smell it enough you can convince yourself you can smell the ocean there
Flavor – Initially slight roast and faint bitterness, slightly sweet in the middle, finishes bitter and salty with lots of roast, solid but also creamy texture
Iwate Kura is similar to SanktGallen a bit in the way that every craft beer drinker here knows of them and likes some of their stuff, but they don’t really release lots of new and exciting beers. The one beer that has really made their reputation here though is this one – the Oyster Stout. Interestingly, this beer was brewed by a pretty famous brewer here named Niwa Satoshi, who brewed this beer while at Iwate Kura but is now at Outsider Brewing, who generally make very good beers.
The history of oysters in stout is kind of interesting – it was first used as a clarifying agent for beer, and brewers would basically just pour beer over oyster shells. Then it progressed to actually putting oyster shells into the boil, and then it was a natural next step to put the oyster itself into the boil. Today some beers labeled oyster stouts use the shell, others use the oyster meat, and still others actually use no oysters but use the name either as a food pairing recommendation or to just conjure up the warm fuzzy feelings associated with oysters.
The Iwate Kura Oyster Stout uses both the shells and the meat of oysters sourced from Hirota Bay on the Sanriku coast. It’s an area known for oyster farming, and is just 70km from the Iwate Kura brewery. The origins of the beer actually lie in Iwate Kura’s desire to make a beer that would really be local to Tohoku, and so they decided to try to brew an oyster stout. That was in 2003, so it’s clearly been successful enough to survive – so let’s see what it’s all about.
First of all, can you detect the oysters? You can, although oyster is a subtle ingredient. It’s not so present in the aroma, although there may just be a slight hint of ocean, but in the flavor there’s a certain amount of salt and brine on the finish. The Iwate Kura Oyster Stout also works in terms of the stout aspects as well – there is a nice soft roast smell, and the texture is creamy but still solid. It’s got a good amount of bitterness for a stout, and plenty of roast chocolate, especially on the finish. It provides for an interesting contrast with the salt factor and gives it spice.
Overall I really like this beer, so fortunately for me it’s pretty reliably available. They say it’s only brewed from between October and February, but I feel like I haven’t had much trouble finding this beer throughout the year – I’ll have to pay more attention and see if availability drops off during the summer. Bottles can be found at Liquors Hasegawa and Le Collier, and they’re priced at a reasonable 520 yen at both shops. On tap they’re a favorite of Craft Beer Market and also seen regularly at places like Ushitora and DevilCraft, and I’m sure many other bars I’m forgetting at the moment. They also offer up a real ale version of this, so you may see this around as well. It’s not rare so you won’t have to snatch it up, but it’s a good one so you won’t regret drinking it if you do.
Songbird Peaty Oyster Stout (ソングバード・ピーティオイスタースタウト)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Black, very foamy but settles down quickly enough
Aroma – Almost all peat, medicinal gauze
Flavor – Very fizzy, somewhat acidic at first, then lots of peat but less than the aroma, slight bitterness and roast on the finish
Songbird is a pretty interesting new brewery out in Chiba – we first reviewed their Brett Table Beer here, and the Peaty Oyster Stout is the second Songbird brew we’re trying. As you can probably tell by the homemade label (looks like inkjet on cheap paper, and then there’s a little handwritten tag tied around the neck with twine) it’s still a relatively small operation, but they’re certainly adventurous in the beers they make, so I’m following them pretty closely to see what they can come up with.
With the Peaty Oyster Stout, they’ve used oyster shells sourced from Akkeshi near Sapporo, and combined that with peated malts to come up with this beer. It’s definitely peaty, and the aroma is fairly strong – strong enough perhaps to overwhelm anything else about this beer. The other major characteristic of this beer is acidity, so between the peat and the acidity it’s a harsh beer. There are hints of roast and chocolate and all the other nice things you get in stouts, but no trace of oyster, and again, everything is overwhelmed by the peat and acidity. The texture is quite fizzy, which isn’t really good or bad but slightly unexpected.
Overall, this beer is lacking in any kind of subtlety or balance. They really need to rein in the peat here, which would probably do a lot for bringing out the other flavors in the beer. I also think, though, that it’s probably a bit unfair to be too hard on this beer, as this is the first time they’ve brewed this beer. Again, as I said before, Songbird are great in the sense that they’re willing to try new things, and even though naturally they have some room for improvement I’m rooting for them to succeed, and I’m definitely very interested in anything else they may come up with. In fact, one of our soon-to-come reviews will be another new Songbird beer called the Myrtille Noir, which is a blueberry black saison!
So clearly the Iwate Kura Oyster Stout is a more polished beer than the Songbird Peaty Oyster Stout, and in my opinion the Iwate Kura is one of the best stouts in Japan. While Songbird’s attempt at an oyster stout was not very successful, I’m still looking forward to great things from them. As for other oyster stouts, Ise Kadoya has a seasonal oyster stout they brew, so we’ll try to get to that one when it’s released. Hopefully we’ll find some others as well!