SanktGallen

SanktGallen (サンクトガーレン)

Based in Kanagawa, SanktGallen are kind of interesting in that while they are a fairly major player (and one of the oldest) in the craft beer scene here, they’re often overlooked. There are a couple of reasons for this – one, they have a fairly set lineup of beers and don’t really make many seasonals and add new beers to their lineup. Two, which is possibly related to the first reason, is that they do 70% of their sales in bottle form – given how large they are, you don’t really see too many of their beers on tap that often, especially at the more adventurous craft beer bars.

Part of this probably has to do with the kinds of beers they produce. They essentially have two “lines” that they focus on – one is American-style ales, which in their regular lineup consists of the Golden Ale, Pale Ale, Amber Ale, Brown Porter, and Yokohama XPA. The other line of beers they produce is the “Sweets Beer” series, and is something they conceived to try to attract more women to their beers (you find this a lot in Japan, the assumption that women will only like fruit beers and such and not hoppy or bitter beers). The year-round beers in this series are just the Sweet Vanilla Stout and the Kokutou Sweet Stout, but they have set seasonals every year that include the Sakura, Shonan Gold, Pineapple Ale, and Apple Cinnamon Ale.

Having those two lineups in and of itself is not a problem of course, but their execution leaves a bit to be desired. They tend not to be too bold when they make their beers, and these days that tends to be a big minus. For example, with their American-style beers, many of you will find them to be somewhat uninspiring – the Yokohama XPA is their IPA, but it isn’t a very exciting one. Similarly their Brown Porter is a bit bland, the Pale Ale is an OK but not highly memorable malty pale ale, etc. Out of these beers my favorite is probably the Amber Ale, and while it’s not the best in Japan it’s at least on the higher end here.

With the Sweets Beer series as well, they suffer from just not being bold enough. Often the beers taste like fruit juice, without either the tartness/sourness or hoppiness that many brewers are now getting from their fruit beers. I do think the Sweet Vanilla Stout is a great beer though, that manages to balance the sweetness of the vanilla with a nice hoppy background throughout the beer. Unfortunately, the Kokutou Sweet Stout is not quite as good.

However, I actually haven’t mentioned the one time of year when SanktGallen transform themselves into awesomeness – the winter! That’s when they produce their barley and wheat wines (El Diablo and Un Angel respectively), and especially the barley wine is a fantastic brew. Again, like the Sweet Vanilla Stout, it has a hoppy bite to it that you don’t get too often with barley wines and provides balance.

If you’ve noticed a theme developing, it continues with another one of their excellent winter seasonals – the Imperial Chocolate Stout also has a bit of an unexpected hoppiness to it, and it makes for possibly the best imperial stout in Japan. The Imperial Chocolate Stout is released annually around Valentine’s Day, along with three other stouts – the Orange Chocolate Stout, a repackaged Sweet Vanilla Stout (same recipe as the usual one though), and a stout that changes every year – last year it was a Smoked Chocolate Stout that was quite nice, and the year before was a Mint Chocolate Stout.

While they don’t produce too many special or limited beers, they do also produce an April Fool’s beer every year – the 2015 edition was a beer supposedly made with baran (バラン), which is a plant but also refers to those green plastic film-like pieces that serve as bento dividers. Of course plastic doesn’t make for a great beer ingredient so the actual extra ingredient is wasabi.

SanktGallen does not currently operate any taprooms, but they have a bit of an interesting history here. They actually started up a brewpub in San Francisco first in 1993, but because of the brewing laws in Japan then they were not allowed to start up a proper brewery in Japan. To get around that, they opened up a brewpub in Roppongi that only brewed non-alcoholic beer in Japan, but imported the beer they were brewing in the US. Of course, the brewing laws have since changed so they no longer need this kind of chicanery, and have since closed their Roppongi location. They actually did operate a taproom in Atsugi for a little while as well, but that has also closed and they don’t have one at the moment.

Fortunately for SanktGallen fans, their bottles are not hard to come by. In Tokyo, their regular beers can be found in the usual places (Liquors Hasegawa, Le Collier, Nomono are where I see them most often) in addition to a few supermarkets and such – I’ve seen them in Precce and Peacock, and they are also carried by some department stores as well.

Limited release beers (including the El Diablo and the Imperial Chocolate Stout) are most reliably found at Liquors Hasegawa, but I’ve also seen them at Aeon Liquors and Shinanoya. Interestingly enough, long after the winter season, I saw the Imperial Chocolate Stout pop up at my local Daiei, so most likely the overstock started flowing out to different retail outlets owned by the Aeon conglomerate.

As the El Diablo and Imperial Chocolate Stout are well-loved in Japan, you’ll be able to find those on tap when they are released in the winter. Craftheads in Shibuya, which normally does not carry too many of the regular SanktGallen beers on tap, actually had the current and last year vintages of the El Diablo available for tasting. You’ll also find their beers at places like Ant’N’Bee, iBrew, Watering Hole, Craft Beer Market, etc., but the reality is that outside of their winter seasonals their beers on tap are not really in high demand. They’re around, of course, but not really consistently at the best of the craft beer places like you might see with some of the more popular breweries around here, like Tamamura Honten or recently, Kyoto Brewing or Shonan.

Overall, they’re not really my favorite brewery, but they do make a couple of my favorite beers here in Japan. Definitely try the winter seasonals if you can – both the barley and wheat wines and the Valentine’s Day stouts are definitely highlights of the Japanese beer calendar.

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Tasting Rooms: None

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Places to buy in Tokyo:

  • Regular beers can be found at Liquors Hasegawa, Tokyo Liquor Land, Le Collier, Nomono, and also some supermarkets and department stores as well
  • Limited beers can be found at Liquors Hasegawa, Shinanoya, and Aeon Liquors, among others

Swan Lake Beer

Swan Lake Beer (スワンレイクビール)

Swan Lake is a brewery in Niigata that doesn’t necessarily have a set lineage or style (in contrast to say Fujizakura Heights, who are very firmly German-style). In fact, they started out as a wedding and event venue, but then became interested in beer and started brewing! When they first started out they had an American brewer help guide them, so while I suppose you can say they are nominally American-style their regular lineup consists of a porter, an amber, a weizen, a golden ale and a rice lager. They don’t also have a huge range of beers they produce, with a few seasonals per year that they make. They do, however, make fairly good beer overall, with some excellent ones among them.

The big black mark against Swan Lake is their insane pricing. Even on their official shopping site a standard 330mL bottle of their Amber Swan Ale goes for 600 yen without tax, and the Porter is 700 yen without tax. Seasonals? Run you even more – I paid 860 yen for the Gray Stout. Special seasonals? 1075 yen for the Imperial Stout!

On tap the story doesn’t really get much better if you go to their taprooms. You’ll pay at least 980 yen for 500mL of any of their beers on tap, and some seasonals will cost more. And guest beers at their taprooms cost even more – I’m looking at the current menu for the SwanLake PubEdo right now, and they are charging 1300 yen for 500mL of the Tamamura Honten Wheat Ale! I bought a bottle of this a few weeks ago for less than 450 yen, so they are definitely on the high side when it comes to pricing.

It’s not all bad news, though – they make some decent beers, and if you go to other craft beer bars not run by Swan Lake, you can find their beer on tap at normal prices. So with that in mind let’s go through their beers a bit.

While they don’t have a strong stylistic bent, I find that they do a pretty good job with dark beers. Their Imperial Stout is awesome, a definite contender for best imperial stout in Japan. Their Black IPA would also be a contender for best-of-breed here, although it must be said that black IPAs are not all that common here yet. The Gray Stout is an interesting beer, and the Porter is solid if not spectacular.

Among non-dark beers, their Amber Swan Ale is quite excellent – if bottles weren’t so expensive this would be a nice one to drink regularly. The IPA maybe doesn’t quite match up to other top IPAs here but is a good IPA, and the oddly-named #B-IPA Belgian IPA is also a pretty interesting one.

In terms of distribution, bottles are not all that common. A few bottle shops around Tokyo have the regulars, and I know of only two that carry seasonals (Liquors Hasegawa and Tanakaya). As far as on tap, among the regulars, the Amber Swan Ale and the Porter show up at various craft beer bars fairly regularly, but the other regulars are very rare (probably due to their lack of general popularity). The seasonals are also usually carried by those same bars (outside of the taprooms usually Craft Beer Market, Popeye, and Ant’n’Bee seem to have Swan Lake around regularly), so if you are really interested in their beer you shouldn’t have much trouble finding them on tap around Tokyo (plug for our taplists here).

Speaking of their taprooms, in addition to the restaurant they operate at the brewery in Niigata, they also operate two taprooms in Tokyo called Pub Edo. The first one they opened is just south of the Yaesu side of Tokyo Station, and they just opened another one recently by Yoyogi Uehara. I have only been to the Tokyo one, and in addition to their high prices I don’t find the atmosphere to be all that inspiring, so I don’t frequent it very often. If you check their taplists though you will find that they sometimes offer beer that is hard to find elsewhere, such as barrel-aged versions of their imperial stout or previous year versions of their imperial stout. It’s probably worth checking out at least once.

Swan Lake is a solid brewery, with at least a few excellent beers. However, they don’t experiment much and don’t come up with new stuff so often, so it’s hard to expect anything more of them down the road – they are what they are. Bottles and the taprooms are expensive, but if you can find their beers on tap at a non-Swan Lake-operated bar, that would be a good time to check them out.

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Tasting Rooms: Yaesu (Tokyo Station), Yoyogi Uehara

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Places to buy in Tokyo:

  • Regular beers can be found at Liquors Hasegawa, and sometimes Le Collier and Nomono
  • Limited beers can be found at Liquors Hasegawa and Tanakaya

Tamamura Honten

Tamamura Honten (玉村本店)

This is our personal favorite among the breweries in Japan. Located in snow country in Nagano, they also label some of their beers as Shiga Kogen (志賀高原). Interestingly, they not only produce beer but also their own sake and wine, and as such have lots of land on which they can grow their own barley, hops, berries, and other ingredients for their beer. While they are well-known in Japan for beer, their sake isn’t quite as popular, and I have no idea if anyone drinks their wine or not.

Their base strength lies in their American-style hoppy beers. Their House IPA is one of the best IPAs here – appropriately hoppy and bitter. That one is a double IPA, and they also have a regular IPA, which while not quite on par with the House IPA is a solid offering. Another strong-ish IPA that they have just begun to release semi-regularly is the 10th Anniversary IPA (其の十) made with their sake rice, which gives it a bit of a different texture from their other IPAs. There is also a nice black IPA that they call an India Black Ale, which is a seasonal offering and quite limited. To go with their usual IPAs they have a session IPA called the African Pale Ale (unfortunate naming I think, but they said they wanted to invoke a place as exotic as India but not India – the bottle also has safari camouflage on it) and a session black IPA called the African Black Ale, both of which are quite nice. Rounding out the standard hoppy beers are their Pale Ale and Draft Pale Ale, which are OK, if not as exciting as their IPA offerings.

However, one other feature of Tamamura Honten that makes them quite interesting is the fact that, as mentioned above, they grow a lot of their own ingredients. Taking advantage of that, they have really gotten on board the saison bandwagon. They have two regularly packaged (meaning 330mL bottles) saisons that are both pretty interesting. One is the Indian Summer Saison, which is a very hoppy saison and one of my favorite beers in Japan. They themselves describe it as their stab at a Belgian IPA, and it does taste like one – yeast and hops, both very prominent. The other is the Miyama Blonde, which is also made with their sake rice like the 10th Anniversary IPA.

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Yama-Bushi saison noir, with Thomas the Tank Engine looking on . . .

Tamamura Honten not only is on board with saisons, they are also one of the only major brewers packaging beers in wine bottles, and they do this only with their saison series released under the Yamabushi tag. This project focuses on highlighting their homegrown hops, rice, berries and other ingredients to make unique beers that can really capture the local flavor – beer terroir, of course, and all bottle-conditioned. The first in the series, which they brew regularly, is the saison one – this also is one of my favorite beers here. An excellent saison, with a nice grassy, yeasty, spicy flavor. The second in the series is saison noir, which is a dark saison, and that was followed by a blueberry saison which has since been discontinued. Number four is the saison brett, which as you might guess makes use of brettanomyces, and is still available. They also periodically make one-off beers in this series using fruits they grow, such as the berry-infused grand rouge and the self-explanatory apricot saison. While naturally some are better than others and I have my favorites, if you ever see any bottles pick them up – they are all quite interesting and worth trying.

But wait – there’s more! Tamamura Honten is also one of the few brewers here making barrel-aged beers. They recently released a series of Ichiro Malt bourbon and Chichibu barrel-aged beers, which were quite limited in quantity but well worth the effort of tracking down. My personal favorite is The Far East Imperial House IPA, which was aged in Chichibu barrels, but both the Chichibu-aged Masaji Ichiro Chichibu W-IBA and the bourbon-aged Masaji Ichiro Bourbon W-IBA are very nice. As I mentioned, these beers are tough to get a hold of, but you may see them in certain liquor stores (in Tokyo those would be Liquors Hasegawa, Deguchiya, Shinshu Osake Mura, possibly Tanakaya) that specialize in craft beer. A surefire way of obtaining them is to follow the Tamamura Honten head brewer’s blog (ゆるブル), where they often post new and limited beer offerings that you can order online even if they are not officially listed on their online shopping page.

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Tamamura Honten’s collaboration with Pizza Port: So Sexy Brown

Another aspect in which Tamamura Honten are a bit ahead of the game in Japan is that they have recently been involved in quite a few collaborations with foreign brewers. In fact, as I write this I am drinking their newest collaboration called the So Sexy Brown, which is a very very very nice brown ale brewed with Pizza Port (hoppy, malty, roasty, chocolatey – excellent balance). They’ve also done collaborations recently with Hair of the Dog and Nøgne, and on their blog they just posted that they will be exporting to America for the first time very shortly.

In terms of availability, their regular and semi-regular offerings are pretty widely available (for craft beer, that is) – you may not find them at supermarkets and convenience stores, but most liquor stores that stock craft beer are likely to have some of their stuff there. Prices are also quite reasonable – I’ve bought the Indian Summer Saison for as cheap as 390 yen, and even the House IPA can be found for less than 500 yen, which is quite a bargain. As for draft, again, most craft beer bars will have their beer available. In Tokyo, they have a particularly close relationship with Craftheads in Shibuya (which is a great beer bar by the way), and in addition to usually having something of theirs on tap they also host events with Tamamura Honten every now and then.

Finally, another (and perhaps the most compelling???) selling point – in addition to a taproom next to the brewery called the Teppa Room, they also operate a bar at the Shiga Kogen ski resort that is open only during ski season. Also called the Teppa Room, it is located on the first floor of the Chalet Shiga ski resort in the Ichinose area of Shiga Kogen – as long as you are in Ichinose it is easily within walking distance. While they may not have all of the rarest Tamamura Honten beers there you will still find a decent selection of their regulars and some limited beers (when we went they had the 10th Anniversary IPA on tap), so for those of you who like skiing/snowboarding and craft beer, this is basically paradise.

Given their relatively forward-looking nature, I think it’s reasonable to expect more exciting things to come from them. It should also be noted that they have just installed a computer-controlled brewing system in order to be able to ramp up production, so they may have an adjustment period where they will need to focus on learning the new system and maintaining quality. But that hasn’t appeared to be a problem so far. Definitely one of our favorites, and one we’re still expecting great things from.

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Tasting Rooms: year-round, ski season only

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Places to buy in Tokyo:

  • Regular beers can be found most reliably at Liquors Hasegawa, Le Collier, Deguchiya and Shinanoya in Shibuya. Le Collier is the absolute cheapest, followed closely by Deguchiya and Shinanoya.
  • Limited beers can be found at Liquors Hasegawa, Deguchiya, Shinanoya, Tanakaya, and also at Shinshu Osake Mura near Shinbashi.