It’s winter, so it’s imperial stout season! We’ve taken what we consider to be the best four reliably available imperial stouts in Japan to review in two parts. Somewhat arbitrarily we’ve paired them up by age-ability – today we’ll look at the Minoh and Swan Lake Imperial Stout offerings, which have a shelf life similar to other regular beers, and next time we’ll look at the Baird and SanktGallen brews, which can be aged for a few years.
Minoh Imperial Stout (箕面・インペリアルスタウト)
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 60
Pour – Black, oily, nice lacing on the mild carbonation
Aroma – Very nice chocolate smell, also roast and plum
Flavor – Initially quite bitter, then roast chocolate begins to permeate the flavor, slight plum and then bitter again on the finish, charcoal, full texture
This is our first imperial stout review on BeerEast, so we may as well rehash the origin myth of the imperial stout. There’s some amount of debate out there as to whether the usual myths have any basis in fact or not, but the basic story goes that in the 18th century Russian czars (especially Catherine the Great, who is very strong associated with Russian Imperial Stouts) really took a liking to the stronger porters and stouts that were being brewed in England then. The common backstory behind why the beers were stronger is so that they could survive the journey, but the beer historian Ron Pattinson’s blog points out that as regular strength porters were being shipped all the way to the American colonies that the most likely reason why they were strong is simply that that’s what the Russian czars wanted. So now that we know a bit about Russian Imperial Stouts, what about Japanese Imperial Stouts?
The Minoh Imperial Stout is a solid effort for a Japanese imperial stout, Minoh or not. The most prominent aspect of the beer is its bitterness, which really jumps out at you from the beginning and pretty much stays all the way to the end. That doesn’t mean that’s all there is to this beer, though – it has plenty of roast and chocolate, and even a hint of plum. The beer also has a very full and thick texture, which is always nice to see.
There’s a lot going on in this beer, and I appreciate the complexity here. However, I think it’s possibly a bit too bitter in that bitterness starts to overwhelm the other aspects of it, and I think it would serve beer well to bring out the chocolate and roast and especially plum a bit more prominently. Bitter is good and something that most imperial stouts tend to leave by the wayside, but this one goes a bit too far in that direction.
Overall though, a solid imperial stout and one that I would recommend. I bought mine at Liquors Hasegawa but have seen this at other places that carry Minoh beer. It’s not too pricey at 590 yen, so definitely worth a try.
Swan Lake Imperial Stout (スワンレイク・インペリアルスタウト)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Very very black and opaque, not much carbonation, good lacing
Aroma – Chocolate, but takes a back seat to the booze, plum as it warms up
Flavor – First chocolate and nuts, then caramel and plum, then bitter, and finally coffee on the finish
Swan Lake for the most part make pretty decent beers, especially when it comes to dark beers. Their Black IPA, Gray Stout and Porter are all decent beers, with especially the Black IPA being one of my favorites, so it’s fair to have pretty high expectations for this one. Let’s see if it can meet them.
Wow. So this isn’t the first time I’ve had this beer, but every time, it’s wow. The Swan Lake Imperial Stout is quite something – bold and strong, but at the same time complex and subtle. Everything you might want in an imperial stout is here in abundance – you’ve got the roast chocolate, nuts, plum, caramel, coffee, etc., but all in a very nicely staged beer in terms of profile. It’s quite an accomplishment to get a beer to play out those characteristics in a well-defined sequence, and Swan Lake manages to do it and do it well. On top of all that, it’s got a very full and satisfying texture, and the warming effect in the belly (10% ABV!) is another great bonus.
The only thing I would dock it points for is that the alcohol smell is quite strong. In fact, at first the alcohol aroma is somewhat overwhelming, although it does transition to plum over time. Regardless, though, the flavor and texture are more than enough to make for this flaw, and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the beer.
What might kill you though is the price. With Swan Lake pricing is always a concern, but with this beer at 1161 yen at Tanakaya (which generally is on the cheaper side of the beer store spectrum), I can’t recommend it in good conscience. It’s a great beer, probably my favorite imperial stout in Japan, but at that price it’s something you’d only buy once to try. Fortunately you can find it on tap during imperial stout season at the usual places, and it won’t cost you any more than other imperial stouts in its class.
So to sum up, the Swan Lake Imperial Stout is an awesome imperial stout, only it costs too much. The Minoh Imperial Stout is reasonably priced and pretty good but not as awesome as the Swan Lake. Recommendation? Buy both once and try them, and then you’ll have to decide whether you would ever pay over 1100 yen for the Swan Lake again!