Today’s theme is “stouts-that-are-rarely-seen-in-bottled-form-that-we-thought-were-bottled-versions-of-canned-stouts-but-turn-out-to-be-slightly-different.” It’s a bit unwieldy but describes my confusion upon purchasing the Iwate Kura Stout and the Echigo Stout.
Iwate Kura Stout (いわて蔵ビール・スタウト)
Package: 330mL bottle
Pour – Dark cola brown, not much carbonation, pours like an imperial stout
Aroma – Roasted cocoa, like a cup of hot chocolate, slight plum
Flavor – Some malts, mild licorice and fruit in the middle, coffee and chocolate on the finish, nice solid texture, more sweetness as it warms up
Iwate Kura make some very interesting beers (like the Oyster Stout or Egoma IPA), but also some duds, like their poor weizen bock. As such I’m not entirely sure what to expect here, and that feeling is compounded by not actually knowing which beer I have in front of me. On RateBeer the entry for the Stout looks to be the right one as it has a photo of the same bottle that I have, but that entry is also aliased from the entry for the Iwate Kura Kuro-kura Stout, which is a canned stout. Looking at the product page for the the canned Kuro-kura, it appears that they are different beers, as the canned version is listed as either 5% ABV or 7% ABV (they can’t even get it right on their own page!), whereas the bottle is labeled as 6% ABV. So even though many of the RateBeer reviews for this bottled Stout appear to refer to the canned Kuro-kura, it would seem that they are not the same beer. Anyway, enough of the confusion – let’s see what it tastes like!
The Iwate Kura Stout is actually a very good stout, with a lot of depth to the flavors. I especially like the plum/licorice aspects in the middle of it, which transitions to a slightly sweet and coffee/chocolate finish. It’s got the basic stoutness down pat, with the roast nuttiness, and although it might be a tad too sweet as it warms up I think there’s enough bitterness to just barely balance it out. Overall, it’s quite a good stout, and something of a surprise – for me Iwate Kura is something of an uneven brewer, and while I love their Oyster Stout I didn’t necessarily have high hopes for their regular stout.
It isn’t necessarily an easy beer to find, especially in its pure bottled form (it’s Kurokura canned sibling mentioned above is more readily available). I found mine at Nomono for 500 yen, and I’ve also seen it as Le Collier. That said, I still don’t come across it very often so if you’re looking for a good local stout with lots of flavor, this is a good place to start. It may, in fact, be one of best regular stouts out there in Japan – most of the excellent stouts in Japan (besides the standard Belgian and imperial stouts) are not standard stouts, whether it is the Hitachino Nest Espresso Stout, the SanktGallen Sweet Vanilla Stout, or indeed the aforementioned Iwate Kura Oyster Stout. In fact, I may put this up with the North Island Stout as the top of the regular bunch so far, although we would definitely need more primary research before jumping to any conclusions.
Echigo Stout (エチゴビール・スタウト)
Package: 330mL bottle
Misc: IBU – 34
Pour – Black, somewhat frothy
Aroma – Mostly malts, some sugar, not much roast or chocolate
Flavor – Very sweet at the start, but settles down into a mild roast, then some bitterness on the finish, overall somewhat sweet and off
Echigo Beer, based in Niigata, was the first microbrewery in Japan (but only by a day!), having got their start in 1994 soon after the brewing laws were relaxed in 1993. They do get pretty wide distribution, and if a supermarket/convenience store carries one non-macro brewery it’s probably most likely to be Echigo. However, they aren’t really talked about in beer circles so much, and you’ll never see their stuff on tap at any of the craft beer places around Tokyo. I’ve had their cans here and there, but this is the first bottle of theirs that I’ve ever seen anywhere, so I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.
Figuring out exactly which of their stouts this beer is though is a bit more difficult than expected. Looking through their product chart, I can see three different beers labeled as the stout that have pretty much identical specs. This one (easily identifiable by the jazzman on the label) is the filtered stout in a bottle, while the unfiltered stout in a bottle has some Amish farmers on it. I can’t tell if the can version is the filtered or unfiltered version, but it does sport double the shelf-life at 8 months compared to 4 for the bottled versions, which definitely seems worth the trade-off of getting (non-liver) cancer down the road. Anyway, now that we’ve determined that we are drinking the bottled filtered version of the stout, let’s see how it does.
The Echigo Stout is a relatively simple beer, and while it’s definitely not awesome it’s not as bad as I expected. It’s got a bit of bitterness to go with just the faintest touch of roast, so that part is OK. Ultimately the sweetness dooms it, and it has a bit of that artificial taste that plagues a lot of not-so-good beers. Again though, given the expectations and the price (just 324 yen at Yamaya), it’s not terrible, and a decent bargain. I wouldn’t necessarily buy it again but I would look askance at someone who did, and perhaps that is greatest praise that can be bestowed on a beer.
So in this battle of unheralded and confusing local stouts the Iwate Kura Stout definitely emerges victorious. The Echigo Stout is a decent bargain but an inferior beer, and if you can find the Iwate Kura it’s worth a shot, although of course it’s nothing compared to the excellent Iwate Kura Oyster Stout. But give it a go, and tell me if I’m crazy for liking it so much.