If there’s one thing that keeps me up at night, it’s trying to figure out what is the best extra pale ale in a can in Japan. Towards that end, we’ll look at the Ginga Kogen Extra Pale Ale and the local favorite OH!LA!HO Captain Crow Extra Pale Ale.
Ginga Kogen Extra Pale Ale (銀河高原ビール・エクストラペールエール)
Package: 350mL can
Pour – Cloudy orange amber, healthy carbonation
Aroma – Malty and bready
Flavor – Somewhat tangy initially, some citrus and some spice, quite fizzy, finish is moderate hop bitter but also slightly metallic
Ginga Kogen is one of those local “ji-biru” (地ビール) producers in Japan where you can’t really tell if they can be called a craft brewery or not. Certainly they operate on a smaller scale than the macros like Asahi and such, but they make fairly bland beers of a predetermined set of styles that includes the weizen, pilsner/lager, and pale ale. They do also get fairly wide distribution in supermarkets and convenience stores around Japan, so they fill that space between macro and craft where you could at least avoid the giant breweries but end up with something that’s almost the same in terms of quality.
For their part, Ginga Kogen was established in 1996 as one of those local breweries that might bring some economic benefit to Sawauchi in Iwate-ken, where they are based. The name of the brewery, which essentially means Galaxy Highlands (銀河 = ginga = galaxy, 高原 = kougen = highlands), is actually derived from a Kenji Miyazawa book turned anime called “Night on the Galactic Railroad” (銀河鉄道の夜), as Miyazawa was from the area and 1996 (the year of the brewery founding) was the 100th anniversary of his birth.
As far as beer goes, when they set up the brewery they weren’t necessarily sure which direction they would go in, and visited a few different breweries in different parts of the world. Eventually they settled on Augustiner in Munich as a good brewery to emulate, and voila! – another German-style brewery is born. They adhere to the good ol’ German beer purity law and use all German malts and mostly German hops, and for their flagship weizen also make sure they are using 50% wheat.
That said, this Extra Pale Ale certainly isn’t German in style. It’s an American style pale ale where they are aiming for the same amount of bitterness as you would get with an IPA. To achieve this they’ve brewed a single-hop beer, using Citra as their bitterness vehicle of choice. Let’s see how well they can pull it off.
The Ginga Kogen Extra Pale Ale actually punches above its RateBeer weight (it scores a miserable 21 overall, 7 style on RateBeer). It isn’t a great beer by any means, but actually not too bad. The Citra hops don’t really come across that strongly in either the aroma or the flavor as it is neither super hoppy nor citrusy, but there is a bit of tang and moderate hop bitterness in there. As it warms up the hops wear out quickly and it becomes more malty, and there is a metallic off-tasting aspect on the finish, so again, this is a pretty mediocre beer, just not as bad as RateBeer would have you believe. If you do try this one drink it fast, at it deteriorates a lot as it warms up.
On the plus side, this beer is quite cheap. I bought mine at Aeon Liquors for a paltry 289 yen, which is encroaching on macro beer price territory. I don’t remember where else I’ve seen it, but you should see it popping up in the autumn in various supermarkets and liquor stores around town. Of course, if you want to have a very good beer for about the same amount of money, then keep reading…
OH!LA!HO Captain Crow Extra Pale Ale (オラホビール・キャプテンクロウエクストラペールエール)
Package: 350mL can
Pour – Gold in color, cloudy, lightly carbonated
Aroma – Very nice tropical fruit hop aroma, pine, malts as well
Flavor – Solid malt base throughout, very piney hops, quite bitter finish
OH!LA!HO is certainly an unusual name for a brewery, and certainly doesn’t evoke much of anything, much less good beer. It turns out that in the local dialect (they’re based in Nagano-ken), おらほ (o-ra-ho) means “us”, or “our home.” It’s fitting that they wanted to choose a name that represents their region, as their parent company is less a company but rather an incorporated organization called Tomi-shi Shinkou Kousha whose main purpose is to promote and sell goods from the city of Tomi in Nagano. As such, they run hotels, onsen, restaurants, and naturally a brewery on top of all of that.
For the most part, OH!LA!HO aren’t too major of a player in the craft beer scene here, and you almost never see their stuff on tap. However, this Captain Crow Extra Pale Ale is a very well-respected beer here, and generally considered one of the better pale ales in Japan. The beer is actually a collaboration between OH!LA!HO and Transporter, which is kind of an industry craft beer webzine that seems to carry a lot of weight within the industry even though it publishes almost no content for the general public. They’ve collaborated with a couple of other brewers as well (I’m thinking of their Ise Kadoya Golden Dragon collaboration) so they certainly have connections, if not content. It’s not their straight-up logo, but for some reason Transporter is loosely associated with pirates, so the Captain Crow can also features a pirate theme. There isn’t much out there about brewing notes, so let’s get straight to the review.
Overall the OH!LA!HO Captain Crow Extra Pale Ale is a great pale ale. It really does a great job of balancing some critical aspects of a pale ale, such as the pine, citrus, hop bitterness, and malts. It’s pretty focused on the hops, both in the aroma and flavor and especially on the finish, but the malts are really like the the pine and hop bitter finish, but malts are also there to provide a solid base. It’s just a wonderfully done beer, with a great aroma to go with it.
To boot, this beer can also regularly be found for under 300 yen. I also bought this one at Aeon Liquors, and it was only 298 yen. You won’t see it on tap that often (IBREW near Kyobashi often has it on tap), but the cans are pretty readily available. In addition to Aeon Liquors you’ll find it not only at craft beer specialists like Deguchiya and Liquors Hasegawa, but you’ll also find it at places like Daiei/Aeon Style and Seijo Ishii. At that price and quality, this should basically be your go-to beer in Japan. In fact, regardless of price, this might be the best pale ale in Japan, with perhaps the Onidensetsu Kinoni Pale Ale the only other pale ale here able to give it a run for its money.
So definitely the Captain Crow is the big winner here, whereas the Ginga Kogen Extra Pale Ale comes out with not much going for it other than its price and the fact that it’s not awful. At last I can rest easy now, knowing which extra pale ale in a can in Japan is in fact the best.