Daisen G Bock / Mönchshof Bockbier

Although we have reviewed plenty of sub-categories of bock beers (like weizenbock, maibock, rauchbock, etc.), but we actually haven’t yet reviewed a straight-up traditional bockbier. Daisen G just released one, so we’ll take this opportunity to take a look at this still and review the Daisen G Bock together with the Mönchshof Bockbier from Germany.

Daisen G Bock (大山Gビール・ボック)

daiseng_bock

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.5%

Availability: Limited

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 30

Review:

Pour – Black, lots of creamy rich foam

Aroma – Caramel malts, also a bit of plum, more roast as it warms up

Flavor – Plum and cherries, malts, roast on the finish, as it warms up it becomes a great combination of roast, nuts, and cherries

For some reason the traditional bock isn’t a beer you see around as often, even though you’ll see quite a few weizenbocks and maibocks and such. Of course, all of those subcategories of bockbier are derived from the traditional bock, which originated as an ale in the 13th century in the town of Einbeck, Germany. Over time it evolved into a strong lager instead of an ale, and as it migrated to Munich the name of the beer (taken from the city of origin) mutated from “Einbeck” to “ein bock”, which actually translates as “one goat”. Hence the prevalence of goat imagery on bockbier labels!

Stylistically, the bock is a strong dark-ish lager. As such it can be expected to be rich, malty, and toasty. We shouldn’t see a lot of hop contribution here, and it may also be a bit boozy (typical ABV will be around 6% to 7%). That said, there’s a fair amount of variation within the style so our experience may not line up exactly with the BJCP definitions.

While Daisen G have of late been doing a lot with Belgian beers, they haven’t been doing as much of note with their German beers. In fact, they acknowledge as much in their brewer’s notes here, and there’s a few interesting tidbits in there about this beer. First off, although in the past they’ve made a few sub-types of bock beers (they mention their Weizen Bock, Rauch Bock, and Maibock), in their 20 years of brewing this was the first time they had brewed a straight-up standard bock. They brewed it first for their beer subscription club, and as it was well-received they decided to brew it again for a wider release. That makes this the first official bottle release of the Daisen G Bock. Perhaps the most interesting note there is that like the rest of the craft beer world they’ve regained an interest in the recently downtrodden lager, and are looking to brew more lager-based brews, which definitely should be interesting.

As for this beer, the Daisen G Bock is quite a good brew, with lots of different things going on there. First of all, it is appropriately malty, although certainly not too malt-heavy. It has a lot of plum and cherry flavor to it, and while initially I thought perhaps it was a bit much as it warmed up the roasted chocolate and nuttiness caught up to it and made for great balance. The finish is also strong on the roast, but comes back full circle to a bready maltiness. The only thing I would dock it for is that as it continues to warm up it begins to thin out, and the texture really fades to leave it a bit syrupy. It’s a noticeable minus, and perhaps leaves some room for improvement for what is otherwise a very nice and complex beer.

Mönchshof Bockbier

monschof_bockbier

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.9%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 500mL bottle

Review:

Pour -Very clear dark red, good creamy foam

Aroma – Cherry candy quite strong, some malts as well

Flavor – Malty at first, sweet, develops into something kind of like flavored cough syrup, herbal/medicinal aftertaste, malts get more strong and sweetness less sickly as it warms up

Mönchshof is a very old brewery in the city of Kulmbach in Northern Bavaria that traces its history back to a monastery founded in 1349. The word “Mönchshof” actually means monastery, and with the establishment of that monastery the brewing tradition on Kulmbach was also established. In fact, Mönchshof is part of a brewing corporation called Kulmbacher Brauerei, which was formed by the well-known breweries in Kulmbach (EKU, Kapuziner, Kulmbacher, and Mönchshof) to strengthen their collective distribution muscle. Mönchshof’s original beer is a German pilsner, although they’re actually more known for their schwarzbier. Relative to the age of the brewery, their Bockbier is quite recent, having been first introduced in 1994.

The Mönchshof Bockbier is not a super-enjoyable beer in my opinion. Sure, there is a good amount of maltiness there, but the sweet aspects of the beer to me taste very artificial and render this beer somewhat unpleasant. If you were generous you could call this herbal, but personally I would use the word medicinal to describe it. It does improve as it warms up though, as the malts begin to overpower the sweetness and render it less cough-syrupy, but those aspects do still remain and make this not a great beer.

I may be being a bit harsh on it, but after the better balance of the Daisen G Bock this definitely feels far inferior. Whereas the Daisen G had lots of roast character to it, the Mönchshof had very little (although to be fair most bocks are not as black as the Daisen G and not as roasty), and while they both exhibited fruit characteristics the Mönchshof was somewhat artificial tasting and too sweet. In some ways the Daisen G is probably a bit out of character for a standard bock with its heavy roast, but it certainly made for a much better beer. If the Mönchshof had managed to keep its maltiness and not have that medicine-syrup feel to it it would have been more successful, but as it stand I wouldn’t really recommend this beer.

As part of the Kulmbacher Brauerei group they do get pretty good distribution, and I found the Bockbier at Bon Repas in Naka-meguro along with some other Kulmbacher products (I picked up a Kapuziner Weissbier as well). It isn’t a great beer, but at 550 yen for a 500mL bottle it isn’t a terrible deal, so if you’re curious by all means give it a go, although again I think you’d be much better off with the Daisen G Bock.

Daisen G are really proving themselves to be a top-notch brewer in Japan, with a pretty good run of limited beers, including this Bock, and their recent Belgian IPA and Dubbel. This Bock could use a bit of improvement especially in how it holds up over time, but it’s still a good beer, and we look forward to seeing what else Daisen G have up their sleeve.

 

Iwate Kura India Pale Ale / Kobushi-hana IPA / Brooklyn Brewery East IPA

While of course the American IPA is quite popular here in Japan, the English-style IPA doesn’t get quite as much love here. In fact, there aren’t that many examples of them, but today we’ll look at a couple of the better-known ones here – the Iwate Kura India Pale Ale and the Kobushi-hana IPA. For some context we’ll try them together with the Brooklyn Brewery East IPA.

Iwate Kura India Pale Ale (いわて蔵ビール・インディアペールエール)

iwatekura_ipa

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.0%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 330mL bottle

Review:

Pour – Orange-gold, very cloudy, lots of sediment, initially frothy but settles down

Aroma – Very earthy and dirty, bready malts

Flavor – Taste is also malty and bready, lots of yeast, finish is earthy bitter with some sweetness, crackers again on finish, very nice overall, gets a bit sweet as it warms up

With the American IPA being so dominant in the craft beer scene, sometimes it’s hard to remember that the IPA is actually English in origin. As with most origin stories the one about the India Pale Ale being brewed with more hops to survive the voyage out to India is hotly contested, but the fact that the IPA did originate in England is basically well-accepted. Stylistically they’re actually not as far apart as you might think, at least in concept – they both take the pale ale and hop it up to really showcase the hop character.

Of course, you can clearly taste the differences in the two styles, so of course there are some differences in the kinds and amounts of ingredients used, with most of that being in the hops. The English-style IPAs traditionally have generous amounts of Goldings hops, but won’t be overwhelmingly bitter and will focus on producing a floral, earthy hoppiness. As you probably know their American siblings tend to go fairly nuts with the hops, and the more commonly used hops (the C-hops, Simcoe, Amarillo, etc.) will produce a noticeable citrus effect and really ramp up the bitterness.

As far as Iwate Kura goes, while they don’t specifically have a particular stylistic heritage that they profess to adhere to, they do have a strong English bent to them. In addition to this IPA, their Pale Ale, Red Ale, Stout and Oyster Stout are all English-style, with the latter two being very well-made beers. Of course they also make some not-so-great German style beers like their poor Weizen and Weizen Bock, so let’s see if how their take on the English IPA does.

The Iwate Kura India Pale Ale is a very nicely balanced English IPA, with a good variety of bold flavors. It is quite malty and bready, so if that’s not your thing you may not enjoy this one, but it does also have a good amount of yeast and dirt and earthy hops, and even a hint of citrus, especially on the finish. I quite liked this one, and I think the combination of bread and crackers with the bitterness was a good one. It does get a little bit on the sweet side as it warms up, so you might have to dock it some points for that. Overall, though, this is a good, flavorful beer that really nails the English IPA style very well.

Kobushi-hana IPA (こぶし花ビール・インディアペールエール)

kobushihana_ipa

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.5%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 40

Review:

Pour – Hazy orange gold, foamy

Aroma – Hint of earth, some citrus hops, as it warms up very grassy

Flavor – Quite mild, sweet malts in the middle, grainy, finish is malty bitter, thin overall

Kobushi-hana, in our experience with them, are a very inconsistent brewer in terms of quality. Splitting up the beers we’ve reviewed from them by style, they are most successful with their Belgian-style beers (the nice Grand Cru and solid Belgian White), while the German-style beers were on the whole a bit less successful (the decent Marzen and pretty poor Maibock). As you can see from that list right there they are all over the map stylistically, although they generally stick to classic European styles rather than trying bolder American-type beers. You might call them rather conservative in that way, and that word might also best describe many of their beers we’ve tried before, so probably best to temper expectations on their English IPA take as well.

The Kobushi-hana IPA is not the most exciting IPA out there, even if we’re just looking at the less-heralded English IPAs. It’s very thin, and it doesn’t have much to offer besides some malty graininess to it – it could definitely use more earth/grass/yeast to give it some character, and the hops are also a bit too muted here. Fundamentally it just doesn’t have much flavor and doesn’t leave much of an impact, and we can’t really recommend this beer. While we didn’t necessarily expect a whole lot out of this one, this would still have to be categorized as a disappointment.

Brooklyn Brewery East IPA

brooklyn_eastipa

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.9%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 12 fl oz bottle

Misc: Hops – Summit, Celeia, East Kent Golding, Centennial, Cascade, Amarillo

Review:

Pour – Gold in color, lots of creamy foam

Aroma – Tropical fruit and bubble gum

Flavor – Sweet and fruity, bubble gum on the finish, some malts in there but mostly fruity, some hop bitterness on finish but surprisingly light

Brooklyn Brewery is at the same time fairly ubiquitous and fairly anonymous, with most people having heard of them and had their beers but not being super excited about them. They certainly don’t have the cache of the newer and bolder breweries, but they’ve been a fairly steady presence in the craft beer world for a long time now. They also have a strong affinity for more traditional styles, with their Brooklyn Lager take on the Vienna lager being their flagship beer. This East IPA, which rather unexpectedly for an American craft brewer is an English-style IPA, was one of the early beers developed by brewmaster (and brewing legend) Garrett Oliver for Brooklyn, and while the Lager is by far their best-selling beer the East IPA is their number 2 beer in terms of sales.

The Brooklyn East IPA is very heavy on the tropical fruit and bubble gum, and given the ABV surprising how little bitterness it carries. It’s actually also surprising how little maltiness it carries, and really the bubble gum and tropical fruit sweetness are most prominent. In that sense this beer is perhaps a little bit of a cross between an English IPA and an American IPA, with a lot more fruit and pine then you would typically see in an English IPA, but also with a very restrained bitterness which would be unusual in an American IPA. The ingredients also reflect that kind of hybrid approach – the hops used do include East Kent Golding, but also include typical American IPA hops like Cascade, Centennial, and Amarillo, among others.

Putting all three of them together, for me the Iwate Kura India Pale Ale is the clear winner here. Not only does it adhere pretty closely to the style, it does so while bringing out those various flavor elements quite nicely and with good balance. The Brooklyn East IPA was also an interesting more hybrid English/American approach, and while it was certainly pleasant enough to drink it didn’t have a whole lot pizzazz to it. Bringing up the rear was the poor Kobushi-hana IPA, which while you could see the attempt at stylistic faithfulness to the English IPA didn’t really succeed on any level.

So with that a rare victory for the local contender over the overseas heavyweight! The Iwate Kura is actually not very easy to find, though, so if you can’t find it the Brooklyn East IPA (which is paradoxically much more readily available, thanks in part to Kirin’s 25% stake in Brooklyn Brewery) should do just fine, even though it won’t really give you a 100% accurate representation of the English IPA style.

 

Rokko Porter / Harvestmoon Christmas Porter

We haven’t reviewed a porter in quite some time, so today we’ll go with a new brewery for us in the Rokko Porter and try it along with the Harvestmoon Christmas Porter.

Rokko Porter (六甲ビール・ポーター)

rokko_porter

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 5.0%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 17

Review:

Pour – Very dark brown-black, very low carbonation

Aroma – Nice strong roast chocolate and burnt coffee

Flavor – Initially strange seltzer quality, a bit of roast in there in the middle, ends with roast plus medicine

Rokko Beer is a new brewery for us as far as reviews here on BeerEast go. They’re basically a quite little brewery located in Kobe, and although they’ve been around since the first wave of craft breweries in 1995, they aren’t really an influential player in the craft beer scene over here. Their stated goal is to make beer that fits the Japanese palate, without regard to adhering to a particular brewing tradition. As such, they aren’t really an English-style or German-style or anything-style brewery, and their standard lineup consists of a pilsner, English IPA, and porter. There isn’t a whole lot of information out there about either the brewery or this particular beer, so the only note I’d like to point out is that they are quite proud of their grain mill, which they designed and developed themselves! It’ll probably be very difficult to tell if this is going to lead to higher quality beer, but let’s see what the Rokko Porter is all about.

The Rokko Porter has a very nice aroma, but the flavor unfortunately doesn’t live up to it, and is quite an odd-tasting and not super-tasty beer. It has a lot of seltzer to it, which usually doesn’t portend good things, and while it does eventually have a bit of roast and chocolate to it the seltzer persists throughout and dooms the beer. To top it off it gets a little medicine-y at the end of it all, and makes for a fairly poor tasting experience.

The above review probably isn’t going to make you want to rush out and go find this beer, but if you are interested in trying it you can find their beers fairly regularly at Izuya, which is where I purchased mine for 560 yen. That puts it in the pricey range given the quality of beer, but I’ve also bought their beers before at Tanakaya for less than that, so that’s probably the best place to buy it if you can find it there – Tanakaya doesn’t always carry their beer though, so you’d have to check periodically.

Harvestmoon Christmas Porter (ハーヴェストムーン・クリスマスポーター)

harvestmoon_christmasporter

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.0%

Availability: Winter

Package: 330mL bottle

Review:

Pour – Cola brown, decent carbonation but not too foamy

Aroma – Slight whiff of plum, almost nothing (is that caramel?)

Flavor – Initially a bit sour and nutty, soft chocolate roast in the middle, some plum on finish, quite thin and watery especially as it warms up

Harvestmoon isn’t a brewery that we normally get too excited about, besides the fact that they’re located right next to Disneyland. We’ve been conditionally but mildly impressed with their Barley Wine and Black Barley Wine, but for the most part they’re a somewhat forgettable brewery from our experience so far. With that in mind, the brewing notes don’t shed too much more light into what we might find with their Christmas Porter, other than the fact that despite the fact that people don’t eat turkey here and Christmas turkey is definitely not a Japanese tradition, they expect this beer will go well with Christmas foods such as turkey.

The Harvestmoon Christmas Porter probably would not go so well with turkey, and is a bit of a strange porter, especially with a little bit of a sourness in there. I wouldn’t necessarily say the sourness works here, and I’m not even sure that it’s intentional. It does have a bit of roast and nuts and plum, but it kind of gets canceled out by an overriding thinness to it that gets much worse as it warms up. I’d say that this one is definitely not a winner and certainly not very Christmasy, so if you are going to fire up a turkey then you might be better off with a nicer holiday beer (the Hitachino Nest Commemorative Ale is certainly much tastier and might do the trick).

So today we had a couple of uninspiring porters, and while the style itself is perhaps a bit staid what with all of the crazy stouts coming out these days, these two particular examples were both quite poor. That doesn’t mean there’s no hope for the Japanese porter – in fact, we’ve already found a great one previously in the Baird Kurofune Porter, so hopefully we can find other local examples that are worthy of pointing out.

 

Shonan Beer Chocolate Porter / Baeren Chocolate Stout

Today’s theme is local winter seasonal chocolate dark beers that don’t actually have any chocolate in them –  the Shonan Beer Chocolate Porter and the Baeren Chocolate Stout.

Shonan Beer Chocolate Porter (湘南ビール・チョコレートポーター)

shonan_chocolateporter

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.0%

Availability: Winter

Package: 300mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 14

Review:

Pour – Black, initially foamy but dissipates quickly, good lacing

Aroma – Lots of roast chocolate, some plum as well

Flavor – Chocolate, roast, plum, lingering nuttiness and bitterness on finish, decent mix of flavor but somewhat mild overall

If you’ve read some of our other Shonan Beer reviews here, you’ll know that we love them in general but their bottles are hard to find, and their awesome beers are even harder to find in bottles. Their Belgian Stout might the best beer of any kind in Japan, and their Imperial Stout, W-IPA, and Black IPA are all very very awesome but basically impossible to find, whereas you might come across their less exciting beers that hew to their German brewing roots (like their Alt or their Schwarz) every now and then.

This Chocolate Porter, though, is one you can actually find relatively reliably, mostly because it’s released every Valentine’s day. If the concept of a Valentine’s Day beer sounds a little bit unusual, we’ve got it covered here. And since as always labels are the single most important factor in a beer, they’ve got a special heart-shaped Valentine’s label:

Shonan_ChocolatePorter_FrontLabel

They started brewing this beer for Valentine’s Day in 2006, and they’ve continued to release it every year since. Although it’s called the Chocolate Porter, as we mentioned in the introduction it contains no chocolate or any other adjuncts. Given how well they do with their Belgian and Imperial Stouts, let’s see if this lighter dark beer holds up in comparison.

The Shonan Beer Chocolate Porter is a solid porter, with a good variety of flavors in there. There’s a fair amount of standard stout-y stuff, like the roast chocolate and nuttiness, but you also get the plum and dark fruit that you often see in much heavier dark beers, so that was nice to see in a normal ABV porter. There’s actually some bitterness there as well, so in terms of the kinds of flavors here this beer does a good job. Unfortunately, all of those flavors mentioned above are pretty mild, and this beer would be a very very good beer if not for that mild nature holding it back. The Shonan Imperial Stout and Belgian Stout are also bursting with flavor and are much fuller in texture, so certainly they know how to bring out that kind of texture with the flavor, so if they could replicate that in a lower ABV dark beer this would be an unconditional success. As it is though, I’d say it’s relatively well-made and worth trying, but it may not knock your socks off.

Baeren Chocolate Stout (ベアレン・チョコレートスタウト)

baeren_chocolatestout

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.5%

Availability: Winter

Package: 330mL bottle

Review:

Pour – A very fluffy and foamy black

Aroma – Nuts, burnt coffee, a bit of fruit

Flavor – Very smooth creamy texture, very good roasted chocolate, finish is mixture of faint plum with dark bitterness, rich

While the Baeren Chocolate Stout doesn’t have the fancy Valentine’s label (although there is a conspicuous red ribbon on the label), this is also released as a Valentine’s beer. However, Baeren go to great lengths in their ad copy to make sure that they are credited with being the first chocolate beer in Japan. Brewed since 2005, they refer to it as Japan’s “元祖チョコレートビール”, which amounts to calling it the Godfather of Japanese chocolate beers (or the OG Japanese chocolate beer, if you prefer a somewhat more modern reference).

They also emphasize the fact that a lot of the chocolate beers here use additives, like cacao powder and such. This is only partially true though, as we saw above with the Shonan Chocolate Porter and also previously with SanktGallen’s Imperial Chocolate Stout. There certainly are some beers that add cacao, such as the Ise Kadoya Chocolate Porter, so you do see both kinds of chocolate beers around.

Given Baeren’s strong German brewing tradition, it’s also a bit unusual that they were the first to really introduce this style to Japan. They characterize the Chocolate Stout as English style, but it’s one of the few beers that they ship that is not a German-style beer. However, even though I personally think they make some very very good German beers (my favorites are their Classic Dortmunder and their Ursus weizen bock), they don’t get much buzz around here, and you almost never see their beers on tap at the more exciting beer places in town. They might be feeling a little bit of pressure to branch out, as their new beer is actually a saison, and they’ve also been releasing their Iwate Yuzu Wit Belgian witbier every year. It’ll be a shame if they focus less on putting out excellent German beers, as Baeren and Fujizakura Heights are the only ones really doing that a very high level here, but in the meantime let’s see how this Chocolate Stout works.

 

The Baeren Chocolate Stout is a very rich beer, and I really liked this one. It has a very full texture, which puts it over the Shonan offering, and it also has very strong flavors. There is of course a lot of roasted chocolate, which is quite nice, but it also has the plums and the bitterness, which isn’t something you would always see in a regular stout like this (OK, it’s a bit stronger than the usual 5% ABV standard stout here, but nothing close to the 10% ABV you might see in imperial stouts these days). As it warms up the bitterness fades a bit but the fruit and toffee flavors really come out more, and it all combines to make a really good beer.

Despite our desire to see Baeren continue to put out good German beers, they’ve definitely shown they have the chops with other kinds of beer as well. The Baeren Chocolate Stout is not only a very good beer, it’s actually quite affordable at 450 yen (at Liquors Hasegawa, probably cheaper at Tanakaya). I wonder if they would consider releasing this year-round, as this is a quality beer that is low enough ABV to be a regular purchase. The Shonan Chocolate Porter is also not bad, but the Baeren definitely takes this one.

Baeren also release an imperial version of this beer called the Chocolate Stout Vintage, so hopefully we can get a review of that one up soon as well.

Tamamura Honten x Gigantic KAGAMI-BIRAKI IPA / Songbird x Liquors Hasegawa noir de cairdeas

Collaboration beers have taken a bit longer to catch on in Japan than in the West, but we’re starting to see a lot more of them recently. Today we’ll take a look at a couple of rather special collaborations – Tamamura Honten’s KAGAMI-BIRAKI IPA collaboration with Gigantic, along with Songbird’s noir de cairdeas collaboration with Liquors Hasegawa (that’s right, a collaboration with a liquor store!).

Tamamura Honten x Gigantic KAGAMI-BIRAKI IPA

TamamuraHonten_KagamiBirakiIPA

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.5%

Availability: Limited

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 65

Review:

Pour – Super cloudy and milky pour, thick, the color of grapefruit or peach juice, same density as well, moderate but creamy carbonation

Aroma – Very fruity, lots of grapefruit and tropical fruit, pine as well

Flavor – Piney at first, big grapefruit also throughout, very grainy and yeasty, finish has a dollop of fruit with bitter pine finish, overall quite restrained and smooth

Although I mentioned in the introduction that Japanese breweries have been a little bit slow to focus on beer collaborations (or perhaps the world has been slow to find Japanese breweries to collaborate with?), Tamamura Honten have been the most active collaborative brewer here by far. They’re very proactive in terms of trying to build relationships with brewers overseas, and this has led to mostly excellent collaborations with a lot of very well-known brewers such as Nøgne Ø, Pizza Port, Dieu du Ciel, and Hair of the Dog, not to mention some interesting coffee beer collaborations with Nagoya coffee-head bar/roaster Trunk Coffee.

The collaboration we’re looking at today, though, is with Portland brewer Gigantic, who have, depending on how you look at it, either a fresh and unique approach to brewing or a faux-edgy hipster approach to brewing: the only beers they brew regularly are their Gigantic IPA and more recently the Ginormous Imperial IPA, with everything else they make intended to be one-time only limited brews. Given that most of their beers were intended to be one-offs, they actually went so far as to publish all of their recipes online here as a handy reference for home brewers. But alas, as rules are meant to be broken, they do actually re-release their beers, whether they are periodic releases such as their barrel-aged version of the IPA known as Pipewrench or formerly one-time-only seasonal releases re-brewed for special events such as their 5-year anniversary (moral of the story: no matter how much straight talk you hear about straight talk there is no such thing as straight talk).

Given that Gigantic’s flagship beer is a West Coast IPA and the Tamamura Honten themselves have a strong affinity for West Coast IPAs you would naturally think that this collaboration would also be a West Coast IPA. But of course we wouldn’t write that sentence if it actually was just a West Coast IPA – no no, in this case, they’ve come together to make a New England IPA! In fact, this isn’t even their first collaboration together, and that first collaboration turned out to be a jasmine rice lager called the OKI LAGER.  So this time around they’ve come a bit closer to their respective histories and brewed a hazy, cloudy, juicy New England IPA, despite Gigantic’s casual dismissal of what NPR reports as the “haze craze“. Tamamura Honten also seem to be aware of both the hype around the haze and Gigantic’s previous stance on the style, as they refused to name the style while still acknowledging it:

“最近流行りのアレを、意識していないとは言わないことにしておきます。”

In any case, as Japan is a long ways away from New England, some of you may be wondering what a New England IPA actually is. We haven’t actually seen too many New England IPAs yet in Japan, but you’d be looking for an IPA that first of all is very cloudy and hazy in appearance, and very fruity on both the nose and the palate. Even though it does usually employ a fair amount of hops, the bitterness will be not be anything like you would find in a standard West Coast IPA, and again the fruitiness should be much more prominent than the bitterness.

As for how to achieve this haze, there are a lot of factors that go into it. Certain yeasts will create a hazier beer, as does dry-hopping, which New England IPAs make heavy use of. Of course these beers are not filtered or pasteurized, which will allow the beer to remain as cloudy as possible. However, there are also some dark arts spoken of when it comes to how to haze up a beer – there are whispers of less-scrupulous purveyors adding superfluous ingredients like flour or applesauce to produce the desired milky appearance, although nobody will verify or deny these claims. The use of adjuncts such as wheat (wheat beers tend to be cloudy) is fair game though, as long as they are not there just to add haze but also are perceived to add flavor.

That brings us back to our KAGAMI-BIRAKI collaboration, which uses sake rice as an adjunct. The rice used is, in fact, Tamamura Honten’s own homegrown Miyama-nishiki (美山錦), which is something of a Tamamura Honten favorite and appears in many of their beers that make use of sake rice, including the excellent No. 10 Anniversary IPA, the also excellent saison one, and the not-quite-as-excellent-but-still-interesting Miyama Blonde. Sometimes in the West (I’m looking at you, Budweiser) rice is used to lighten beer, but many of the rice beers in Japan are somewhat cloudy. I’m not entirely sure they added rice to this IPA specifically for hazing it up, but it’s certainly possible that the rice is contributing to the haze.

The other brewing peculiarity of note here is that they’ve aged it in sake barrels. As Tamamura Honten originally got started as a sake maker in 1805, it was a natural choice to use their own sake barrels for aging. You can see that the barrels used in the KAGAMI-BIRAKI brewing process have “縁喜” (engi), printed on them, which is the branding that they use for their nihonshu. Incidentally, the name for this beer also was conceived from the sake barrel-aging – the word kagami-biraki (鏡開き, which literally means opening the mirror) originally refers to a New Year traditional ceremony where the kagami-mochi is broken open on an auspicious day to herald in the New Year. Now, though, the ceremony is performed at any kind of opening where good auspices are required, like weddings and things like that, and quite often now it is a sake barrel that is being opened as part of the ceremony – hence the name KAGAMI-BIRAKI for this beer.

With all of that, let’s see what the beer itself has in store for us. The Tamamura Honten KAGAMI-BIRAKI IPA is quite a flavorful New England IPA, and definitely ticks off the style check boxes. Overall texture-wise it is very smooth and creamy, and the flavors are very very fruity and piney, with lots of tropical fruit and grapefruit. The hop bitterness is certainly there on the finish, but it is very moderate and restrained, which is of course in line with a New England IPA but somewhat unusual for a Tamamura Honten beer, who tend to go pretty much all out with their hops. The sake rice and barrel-aging add just a touch of graininess to the beer, and while the effect isn’t too pronounced you can definitely pick it out.

It’s quite an interesting beer, and certainly lives up to the high standards that Tamamura Honten have set for themselves over the years. However, there isn’t much chance you’ll find this beer now – this was most likely a one-off collaboration brew, and the online sales of this beer were pretty remarkable. They had announced an online sale start time of 8pm, and when I clicked confirm order at around 8:05 it was already sold out! It would have been nice if they could have reduced the maximum order size from 12 bottles to something like 4 bottles to let more people have a chance at it, but I did manage to find it at Liquors Hasegawa eventually though. If they ever do release it again make sure you get on it early, as it’s a great beer and definitely worth the effort to track down.

Songbird noir de cairdeas (ソングバード・ノワールデカーディス)

Songbird_NoirDeCairdeas

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 8.0%

Availability: Limited

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: Hops – Nugget, First Gold, Saaz

Review:

Pour – Very thick and oily pour, almost no carbonation but has chocolate imperial stout lacing

Aroma – Lots of peat and medicinal gauze

Flavor – Very flat, little bit of toffee, very heavy on the peat and gauze, burnt sugar on the finish, also very slight roast and bitterness on the finish but mild

Our next collaboration is even more unusual than the Tamamura Honten x Gigantic sake barrel-aged New England IPA, especially given that their collaboration partner is the liquor store Liquors Hasegawa! This isn’t just any old liquor store, though, as it is something of an institution here in Tokyo – they actually got started as a stall in 1950, before shortly hitting on the liquor store idea and moving into its current location in the Tokyo Station Yaechika underground labyrinth in 1964. They’re well-venerated as not just a liquor store but as experts in the field of booze – and all kinds of booze, while they’re at it, even garnering a best-of mention in TimeOut Tokyo. They’re actually most known as single-malt whiskey specialists, and their main store near the Yaesu exit furthest south in the complex is stocked with lots of different kind of whiskeys and other hard liquor.

Of course, we wouldn’t be discussing them on a beer blog if they didn’t also sell beer! While their main focus is on whiskey, they actually sell lots of everything, with their main store having small quantities of nihonshu and craft beer and their satellite branch (close to the Daimaru in the same underground complex) selling all of the above plus a pretty healthy selection of wine. In terms of craft beer, they don’t necessarily have tons of quantity, especially with regard to Japanese craft beer, but the items they do stock are definitely well-curated. They always carry Tamamura Honten limited releases (main store – that’s where I found the KAGAMI-BIRAKI IPA above), Baird limited releases (main store), and Ise Kadoya limited release (also main store), and also stock sometimes harder-to-find breweries like Swan Lake, Kobushi-hana, North Island, Nagisa, and Harvestmoon (all in the satellite branch).

However, the one brewery they consistently stock that you almost never see anywhere else (maybe actually never?) is Songbird, a relatively young brewery based out in Chiba. We’ve covered Songbird beers before, and while we have yet to be impressed with their execution in any single beer so far they do have some creative ideas for mostly Belgian-inspired (but with sometimes wacky ingredients) beer, and they’ve always had a close relationship with Liquors Hasegawa. In fact, Liquors Hasegawa have been big supporters of them and have regularly stocked their beers at the main store for quite some time now, despite their relatively high prices (usually 700 yen plus for their more interesting-sounding brews) and slow sales pace (at least from what I can tell by my frequent visits to Liquors Hasegawa those Songbird beers don’t really fly off the shelves and you can see the same beers languishing there for months).

So while it is indeed unusual to have a beer collaboration with a liquor store rather than a brewer, it makes a certain amount of sense here – this beer is essentially an expression of gratitude towards Liquors Hasegawa for their support and friendship. Here it is in their own words:

Songbird_NoirDeCairdeas_Back_2

The name of the beer (“noir de cairdeas”), while clumsily translated into English as “Black of Friendship” on the back label, is also a nod to the two distinct tastes of the involved parties – the “noir” of course is French and refers to the Belgian style of Songbird and their penchant for giving French names to their beers, whereas “cairdeas” is the Gaelic word for friendship and naturally brings to mind Scottish whisky (there is actually a single-malt Scotch called Cairdeas released by Laphroag).

If you read their brewing notes further they detail how the various aspects of the beer are intended to represent both Songbird and Liquors Hasegawa. The nominal style of the beer listed on the label is a peated black IPA – Liquors Hasegawa really like dark bitter beer, so hence the black IPA, and peat is of course strongly associated with whiskey. From the Songbird side of things they’ve naturally gone with a Belgian yeast, and added rosemary and sage as well to the ingredient list (I mentioned Songbird’s tendency to use unusual ingredients, as in the past we’ve seen ginger, oyster, and blueberries in the few beers we’ve reviewed here alone).

So what does this hybrid Belgian-style brewer and single-malt whiskey liquor store beer actually taste like? The Songbird noir de cairdeas is, like many of their beers, an interesting concept and attempt but ultimately fails on its execution. On the face of it, a peated black IPA sounds awesome, but with this beer you get the peat and not much else. There is almost no contribution from the perspective of the black IPA, minus a very slight roast bitterness near the end of the flavor profile. It could definitely use more of the roast bitterness throughout the beer, and is so dominated by the peat and medicine that not only is it one-note but that one note is harsh and off-tasting. In addition the very thin texture to the beer makes matters worse, and again you wish that Songbird had the execution chops to be able to bring these beer concepts to reality in a more balanced fashion. I will say one positive thing in its favor though, which is that as it warms up the medicinal qualities fade just enough to give the roast and toffee more room to operate, so this beer does benefit from being given more time to breathe. There is also the issue of aging, and as the official expiration date on this is November 30 2018 it’s possible that aging it longer would have softened the peat (although also would have killed the hops) and allowed some more non-peat complex flavors to develop.

It’s too bad that this collaboration didn’t really work, as it certainly sounded like it might be an interesting brew. Then again, as I’ve mentioned numerous times, this is rather unfortunately par for the course for Songbird – nice idea, not so good beer. Tamamura Honten, on the other hand, are almost always spot on with their execution, and it shows once again with their very successful New England IPA collaboration with Gigantic. Actually, Tamamura Honten also just released a “standard” (non-sake-barrel-aged, non-collaboration-with-anybody) New England IPA called the New Engi-land IPA to celebrate the opening of their new taproom called The Farmhouse, so we’ve got high hopes for that one and will be looking at it soon as well. In the meantime if you do come across a stray KAGAMI-BIRAKI IPA either in a bottle or on tap definitely take it!

Duvel / Duvel Tripel Hop (2016)

We don’t normally do all-foreign beer reviews, but with Duvel being such a classic it’s probably a good one to have in the archive. Plus, we recently reviewed the Baird Bureiko Jikan Strong Golden Ale, which is essentially a Japanese Duvel clone, so this is probably a good time to do it. We’ll look at the regular Duvel along with the Duvel Tripel Hop 2016 version, which uses the HBC 291 hop.

Duvel

Duvel

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 8.5%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: Hops – Saaz-Saaz, Styrian Golding

Review:

Pour – Very creamy and foamy, straw gold

Aroma – Lemon, grass, hops, very sweet

Flavor – Sweet and tart at first, earthy and bready bitter on the finish, still some tartness at the end

Duvel, of course, is one of those iconic Belgian beers like Orval and Chimay that are basically only known by one name (which happens when you get big enough, like Jesus, Madonna, or Hammer). Unlike the others Duvel is not a monastery, but rather a family owned brewery that is officially called Duvel Moortgat. They’ve got kind of an interesting history to their beer that varies a bit from the traditional monk narrative – they were founded in 1871 by the Moortgat family, but when World War I happened they were exposed to English ales and inspired to try something closer to an English style. When the war ended they went to the UK to acquire a yeast sample (which apparently the UK brewers weren’t so forthcoming with), and they’ve been using the same yeast ever since. To commemorate the end of the war they brewed up a new now-Belgian pale ale called “Victory Ale”, but when a local shoemaker tasted the beer and remarked that it was a “duvel” (which mean devil in the local Flemish dialect), well, there was the new name!

Of course they’ve grown tremendously since then, and they are generally credited with having created the first tulip beer glass as well. The Duvel glass is actually now kind of a flagship product and giant marketing tool in and of itself, where they invent prominent artists to design their own take on the Duvel glass. Beer-wise, although Duvel don’t produce a lot of different kinds of beer under the Duvel name (in fact, they only basically produce three beers, two of which are the same recipe: the main Duvel in the standard bottle conditioned format and the single-fermented tap Duvel Single version, along with the added hop Duvel Tripel Hop that we’ll get to in a moment), they’ve been fairly active in the acquisition market. In addition to Belgian breweries like Achouffe and De Koninck, they’ve also purchased well-known American craft breweries like Ommegang, Firestone Walker, and Boulevard. That said, as they try to expand into the American craft beer world, Duvel is still their flagship product, so let’s see what it’s all about.

Duvel is certainly a very flavorful beer, with a lot of different things happening. Initially, especially straight out of the bottle, it’s very sweet, and it gets you thinking for a second that it’s too sweet to finish. But the flavors develop nicely, and the sweetness tones down into a nice citrus tartness. The transition to the finish is quite nice, and the Saaz hops really come out in an earthy hop finish, while the tartness and zest still remains. In some ways it plays as a stronger Belgian witbier – of course there are no added ingredients, but the citrus is quite strong, and it has that yeast quality to it that is like a good witbier but much more bitter and stronger overall.

With that kind of flavor and balance we’ll definitely give Duvel its classic status, but let’s see how the Tripel Hop version compares.

Duvel Tripel Hop – 2016

Duvel_TripelHop

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 9.5%

Availability: Limited

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: Hops – Saaz-Saaz, Styrian Golding, HBC 291

Review:

Pour – Similar straw gold color, also creamy and foamy but foam settles more quickly

Aroma – Strong tropical fruit aroma, still some earthiness, lemon

Flavor – Very fruity, initially citrus, than passion fruit, finish is hop bitter and dry, becomes somewhat herbal as it warms up, spices are still there

Given that Duvel have a fairly limited product range, it’s not surprising that they would experiment with variations on the Duvel. In fact, they’ve tried adding a third hop to the usual Saaz and Styrian Golding hops since 2007, although it was only productized relatively recently. Every release (which tended to be every spring, although it wasn’t quite so regular early on) they tried a different hop: Amarillo in 2007 (the original) and 2010, Citra in 2012, Sorachi Ace in 2013, Mosaic in 2014, Equinox in 2015, and HBC 291 in this 2016 version. Eventually it devolved into a online marketing stunt, where they had people vote online for their favorite Tripel Hop version, which would then be turned into a regular product (spoiler alert – the Duvel Tripel Hop is officially now brewed with Citra).

As we mentioned above, this 2016 version uses the HBC 291 hop in both the standard brewing process and with additional dry-hopping. If the HBC 291 hop sounds familiar despite its futuristic alphanumeric name (although now it is called Loral), it may be because of Tamamura Honten’s usage of it in their Drunk Coffee Kibiru and Baby Miyama Blonde beers. It’s a hop that has very floral characteristics, so we let’s see how that impacts the Duvel.

The Duvel Tripel Hop is a very different beast from the regular Duvel. The most prominent aspects of the original Duvel are tart, spice, and earthiness, but the Tripel Hop is very fruity, hoppy and herbal. If you didn’t know that the base beer was the same I think it would be hard to discern that. That’s not to say that this is a bad beer, though – in fact, although it’s very different, it’s also quite a flavorful and good beer. Starting with the aroma, you can see the impact of the dry-hopping, as it is quite strong on the fruits and hops. That carries over to the flavor as well, along with the grassy herbal effects from the HBC 291 and some of the spice and zest from the original Duvel, and it all combines to make what ends up being a very nice strong Belgian IPA.

It’s hard to decide which of these I prefer, as while they are quite different from each other they are both very good. I suppose I’d just leave it at that and call it a draw – and note that I’m very curious to check out the new from-now-on official Citra version of the Duvel Tripel Hop and see how it compares to the HBC 291 2016 version we tried here.

Kobushi-hana Marzen / Baird Fest Lager / Sierra Nevada x Mahrs Bräu Oktoberfest

This year we’re even later to get to the Oktoberfest beers, but here we go – we’ve the Kobushi-hana Marzen, Baird Fest Lager, and from overseas the Sierra Nevada and Mahrs Bräu Oktoberfest 2016 collaboration.

Kobushi-hana Marzen (こぶし花ビール・メルツェン)

kobushi-hana_marzen

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.0%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 20

Review:

Pour – Red amber, initially foamy but dissipates quickly

Aroma – Sweet bread, some earthy hops

Flavor – Very malty initially, finish quite bready but also with a bit of the earthy hops coming through

Last year in our Oktoberfest review we mentioned that the Marzen is basically the same beer as the Oktoberfest, with the history of the Oktoberfest basically being that they were the leftover cellared Marzen beers that were brewed in March (since at that time they didn’t have refrigeration and couldn’t brew beer in the warmer summer months) and had not been consumed yet, but needed to be gotten rid of so they could use the casks for the new beers. We haven’t actually tried a Marzen as such yet, but as they are essentially the same style we’ll try the Kobushi-hana Marzen today.

We’ve reviewed a couple of Kobushi-hana beers before, with our favorite being their Grand Cru Belgian triple. They are a little inconsistent though, and given that their other German strong lager Maibock was rather poor we should probably temper our expectations. As for this particular Marzen, there isn’t much out there in terms of brewing notes, so the only thing I’ll mention here is that they brew it as a year-round beer despite it seasonal origin. They do also note the style origins and the Marzen/Oktoberfest relationship, for what it’s worth.

The Kobushi-hana Marzen is quite bready all the way through. It has a very full texture with the bread and malts, and as it warms up you get a bit more of the earthy hops and bitterness on the finish. Overall I’d say it’s a solid effort – it may not be the most complex beer out there, what with the malt/bread dominance, but I found it enjoyable, and it wasn’t entirely without hop contribution.

If you’re interested in checking it out, you may be able find it at Tanakaya (where I bought mine for only 432 yen) or at Liquors Hasegawa, which carries their beers frequently. In fact, they’ve just received a new shipment of Kobushi-hana beers right now (May 2017) as the Grand Cru was just released, so you may be able to find it there. They are somewhat rare though, especially on tap, so happy hunting!

Baird Fest Lager (ベアードビール・フェストラガー)

baird_festlager

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.0%

Availability: Autumn

Package: 330mL bottle

Misc: IBU – 24; hops – GR Magnum & Tradition, Hersbrucker

Review:

Pour – Deep orange amber, cloudy, not much foam but it stays

Aroma – A bit of caramel, good amount of bread

Flavor – Initially caramel, a tiny bit of spice, a sort of unpleasant sharp and past-date bitterness lingers, also very sweet

Instead of the usual damning with faint praise about Baird’s consistent decency and lack of pizzazz let’s just get straight to the beer.

The Baird Fest Lager has a fair amount of things happening in there, although by no means is this a great beer. First, the positives – it’s got a nice combination of caramel and cinnamon, so it starts out with some good flavors. However, the bitterness here is quite sharp and acerbic, and the sugary sweetness also becomes overwhelming pretty quickly. It lacks any kind of subtlety and sweetness and sharp bitterness are just too much. Unfortunately, we’ll have to classify this one as another one from Baird that’s better left on the shelf.

If you do want to be bold and give it a try, I bought mine at Liquors Hasegawa for 500 yen. While Liquors Hasegawa are often significantly more expensive for a lot of Japanese craft brewers, I find that their Baird prices are basically the same as other retailers. You’ll also see their seasonals at Tanakaya, Deguchiya, and sometimes Shinanoya so it’s worth checking those places as well.

Sierra Nevada x  Mahrs Bräu Oktoberfest

sierranevada_oktoberfest

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.0%

Availability: Autumn

Package: 12 fl oz bottle

Misc: IBU – 30

Review:

Pour – Straw gold, lots of carbonation, relatively clear

Aroma – Very grassy, some sweetness

Flavor – As with aroma flavor is very grassy, dirty, a bit of sweet malts start to appear in the middle, finish is combination of sugar and some hop bitterness, bitterness lingers on finish

In 2015 Sierra Nevada began to try give the Oktoberfest a bit of a kickstart in the American craft beer world by collaborating with the very old German brewery Riegele, which traces its roots back to 1386. The resulting Oktoberfest 2015 was a hit a by all means, but the idea from the start was to actually collaborate with a different German brewer every year so that Sierra Nevada could keep exploring and experimenting with the style.

This year’s 2016 version is a collaboration between Sierra Nevada and Mahrs Bräu, which compared to Riegele is a bit of a young upstart in the German brewing world, although Mahrs Bräu itself was founded in 1670. The Michel family has owned and operated the brewery since 1895, so even though that’s only about half of their history that’s still a couple of centuries of family ownership there. They are based in Bamberg in Bavaria, and make a big point of only using raw ingredients sourced from Bavaria. As for their beer, as a traditional German brewer they serve up the usual classics, such as a pilsner, weisse, helles, etc.

In terms of this particular Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest collaboration, the ingredient of note is probably the Record hop varietal. It isn’t actually an ancient German hop brought back to life, but rather a hop that originates from Belgium “sometime prior to 1970”. It was actually developed by breeding the Saaz hop (classic pilsner earthy hop) with the Northern Brewer hop, which is a hop that originates from England and is often described as woody. Northern Brewer apparently was one of the first hops used for hop breeding in the early 1900s, which led to it being the parent hop of quite a few hop varieties.

Anyway, back to the beer! The Sierra Nevada Mahrs Bräu Oktoberfest is a fairly complex beer, with a lot of things going on. The overall impression is very grassy and sweet, but it also has pretty good bitterness compared to the other examples we tried today. It is definitely less bready and malty, although it does get sweeter as it warms up and is perhaps too much there on sweetness. The combination of floral plus bitter works very well, and the malts aren’t forgotten about either. The only improvement I would make on it would be to tone down the sweetness a bit, but overall this was pretty impressive.

So today’s winner? The Sierra Nevada is better balanced and ends up on top due with an enjoyably complex Oktoberfest, with just a minor deduction for the sweetness. The Kobushi-hana was definitely not as well-rounded, but I did enjoy it as well. Bringing up the rear is the Baird Fest Lager, which was really too harsh to recommend.

That wraps up this year’s Oktoberfest review, although Fujizakura Heights just released their Marzen recently, so perhaps we’ll see if we can get a hold of that one. Stay tuned!

Nagisa India Pale Ale / Swan Lake IPA

Today we’ll take a look at a couple of local limited release IPAs – the Nagisa India Pale Ale and the Swan Lake IPA.

Nagisa India Pale Ale (ナギサビール・インディアペールエール)

nagisa_ipa

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.0%

Availability: Limited

Package: 330mL bottle

Review:

Pour – Cloudy orange-amber, mild carbonation

Aroma – Malts are prominent, but can also get some soft hops in there

Flavor – Refreshing, initially malty but soon has a good mix of tropical fruit hops in there, caramel, eventually malts win out

The only previous Nagisa review we have up is the excellent Heaven, which was a very nicely done Helles. As I mentioned in that review Nagisa have begun to ramp up recently, and have been trying to release more varieties of beer to add to their normal lineup of two beers (the American Wheat and the Pale Ale). One of those is this new India Pale Ale, and as we don’t have much experience with Nagisa outside of the aforementioned Heaven, we’re not sure what to expect from this beer.

The Nagisa India Pale Ale is a fairly well-done beer, although I would have preferred to see a bit more hops in there. It’s not that the hops aren’t there – they do make themselves known briefly and that moment is nice, but they fade quickly and the malts begin to dominate a bit too much. Overall, though, it’s a pretty good and refreshing IPA, with a lot to recommend in there. The malts and caramel are good, and it’s a nice first IPA release for Nagisa with some potential for getting better.

Another bonus with this beer is its price – I bought it for only 388 yen at Tanakaya. You may not be able to find their beers easily, but I have seen both regular and limited releases from Nagisa at both Tanakaya and Liquors Hasegawa. I’m actually relatively impressed by them so far, so here’s hoping they can continue to put out some good beers.

Swan Lake IPA (スワンレイク・IPA)

swanlake_ipa

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 7.0%

Availability: Limited

Package: 330mL bottle

Review:

Pour – Reddish-orange, cloudy, a bit more carbonation

Aroma – Fruity hops, also a bit of pine, quite subtle

Flavor – A bit fizzy and tangy initially, pine and resin initially, malts in the middle, sweet and hoppy bitter finish with more pine

We haven’t reviewed a Swan Lake beer in a while, but in general while I would characterize them as kind of hit and miss they are more on the hit side, and capable of making some very very excellent beers (see Imperial Stout). Their IPA is surprisingly not part of their usual lineup, but although I haven’t kept too close track I feel like this beer appears out there periodically rather than on a seasonal schedule. There isn’t much information out there about this beer in terms of brewing notes, but it does note that they use dry hopping to emphasize the hops a bit more.

The Swan Lake IPA is a pretty decent IPA, especially if you like pine. As with the Nagisa IPA, a bit more fruity hops in the flavor would have been welcome, but I think the piney hops still impart a positive impression here. It’s a little bit one-dimensional from that perspective, but I quite like piney IPAs, and it definitely has its share of malts and hoppy bitterness here.

This is a solid IPA, and certainly one I would consider drinking regularly, although again the Swan Lake pricing does give me some pause. It cost me 702 yen at Tanakaya, which is more than even the North Island IPA, which is possibly the best regular IPA in Japan. Given that the North Island IPA is a better beer and priced at around the upper limit of what I would want to pay for a single beer, the Swan Lake, while a decent beer, definitely loses out there. The Nagisa IPA, on the other hand, is not quite as good as the Swan Lake but about half the price. I suppose my end recommendation would be to try these beers once, but the standing IPA recommendation is still this – if you come across either the excellent but mid-price Johana Kagayaki W7 or the even better but expensive North Island IPA, treat yourself to a bottle (you won’t find these that often so it won’t run you that much), and for regular consumption stick with the very good and very affordable Shiga Kogen IPA. This hasn’t changed in a while, but we’re still on the lookout for even better local IPAs out there.

Minamishinshu Dunkel Weizen / Paulaner Hefe-Weißbier Dunkel

The dunkelweizen isn’t a beer style you see very often here, but there is one regular well-regarded one, which is the Minamishinshu Dunkel Weizen. We’ll try it together with the Paulaner Hefe-Weißbier Dunkel for comparison.

Minamishinshu Dunkel Weizen (南信州ビール・デュンケルヴァイツェン)

minamishinshu_dunkelweizen

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 6.0%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 330mL bottle

Review:

Pour – Cola black, not too much carbonation

Aroma – Nice soft caramel roast, fair amount of banana, also some wheat

Flavor – Soft wheat, chocolate is strong, sweet chocolate roast finish

We haven’t reviewed a dunkelweizen before, so let’s do a quick introduction. “Dunkel” in German means dark, so the dunkelweizen is basically just a dark wheat beer. Ingredient-wise, as a dark weizen, it should (at least in Germany) contain at least 50% wheat for the grain bill, with usually Vienna or Munich malt providing the dark beer aspects. Historically, German wheat beers were actually darker in the old days, with the focus on paler weizens actually being a relatively recent phenomenon. In that sense, what we today call a dunkelweizen might be closer to what the original wheat beers were like a long time ago.

Our Japanese example today is the Minamishinshu Dunkel Weizen, which although isn’t really their flagship or most well-known beer, but scores the highest on RateBeer for them. Their seasonal Alps Weizen was not very inspired at all, but in their brief product description it mentions that this is their own original interpretation of a dunkelweizen so we’ll see if their dunkel version fares any better.

Compared to their bland Alps Weizen, the Minamishinshu Dunkel Weizen is a much better effort. It has lots of banana on the nose, although the overall flavor is mostly chocolate wheat. Although it’s not overwhelmingly superior, it is a decent enough beer. I would have like to see more of the weizen aspects carry over to the flavor – the banana is there on the aroma but the flavor is dominated by the darker aspects.

Overall this isn’t bad, and as the dunkelweizen is a pretty rare style here in Japan it’s worth tracking it down if you can. Minamishinshu seasonals are not so easy to find, but you might be able to find it at Izuya, Shinshu Osake-mura, or Tanakaya.

Paulaner Hefe-Weißbier Dunkel

paulaner_hefeweissbierdunkel

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 5.3%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 500mL bottle

Misc: Hops – Herkules, Taurus

Review:

Pour – Amber-brown, quite frothy, cloudy

Aroma – Lots of wheat and banana, not as much roast

Flavor – Tart and tangy and fizzy, solid wheat in the middle, banana finish, just the slightest hint of caramel but not much

We’ve done a couple of Paulaner reviews before (the Oktoberfest Bier and the Münchner Hell), so you kind of know what you’re getting with them. We would expect to see a traditional German beer that adheres to style pretty closely, and has the consistent quality you would expect out a brewery a few centuries old and now owned by a massive conglomerate. They don’t have too much in the way of brewing notes about this beer, but it does note that they use a fair amount of Munich malt in this beer (Munich malt is supposed to be very malty, bready, and nutty flavor-wise), and that it is unfiltered.

The Paulaner Hefe-Weißbier Dunkel is in some ways kind of a mirror image of the Minamishinshu Dunkel Weizen, in that it focuses more on the weizen and less on the dunkel (whereas the Minamishinshu took the opposite approach and was more dunkel than weizen). This means that while it has a bit of caramel, it’s behaves mostly like a weizen, despite the brown coloring. The aroma is very strong on the wheat and banana, and that carries over to the flavor as well, where it has a nice slight tart wheatiness to it with a very banana finish.

Interestingly, you can see this in the colors as well – the Minamishinshu pours very very dark for a dunkelweizen and looks like a porter, where normally you would expect a dark brown like you see with the Paulaner. Accordingly the Minamishinshu is much darker flavor-wise as well, with strong roast chocolate notes to it. Of course, reading the style guidelines again it states that “roasted malt character is inappropriate” for a dunkelweizen, so perhaps this is what Minamishinshu meant when they said this is their original variation on the beer. The Paulaner, on the other hand, adheres to the style guidelines pretty closely, giving you mostly weizen with a nod to some caramel.

Both of these dunkelweizen examples are pretty solid, and while neither is super exciting it’s interesting to be able to see these two different approaches side by side. The Paulaner is closer to what you would expect from the style, whereas the Minamishinshu is a lot more roast than normal for a dunkelweizen. I’d certainly recommend trying them together to see the different approaches, and we’ll keep an eye out for more local examples if we can find them.

Ginga Kogen Extra Pale Ale / OH!LA!HO Captain Crow Extra Pale Ale

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)

gingakogen_extrapaleale

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 5.0%

Availability: Autumn

Package: 350mL can

Review:

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)

ohlaho_captaincrow

Vitals:

RateBeer

ABV: 5.0%

Availability: Year-round

Package: 350mL can

Review:

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.