Drinking craft beer in Japan is little bit like an Easter egg hunt. Craft beer can be hard to find, but making the extra effort can be very rewarding. The other day I managed to find a cache of Sankt Gallen beer in the basement food hall of a local department store. Sankt Gallen’s founder Mitsuo Iwamoto was so excited by craft beer that in the early 1990’s he brewed in America and imported his beer into Japan to circumvent the ban on small breweries. When the Diet changed the law to allow smaller breweries back home, he returned and started brewing in Kanagawa prefecture. While he has since passed away, his son Nobuhisa has taken over the family brewery and continues to create excellent and interesting beers.
Sankt Gallen is named after a World Heritage Benedictine Abbey in Switzerland. Sankt Gallen is the German name for Saint Gall, an Irish saint who ended up in Switzerland in the 500s. A small church was founded in his name after his death. That church ended up growing into the Abbey of Saint Gall which became one of the principle Benedictine Abbeys of Europe; a center of religious learning with a massive library and of course a brewery for the monks use. Despite centuries of war and a few rounds of looting the library still exists and is one of the best and oldest medieval libraries in Europe. Many of the tomes that the Irish monks brought with them to the continent were copied and preserved, while the originals back in Ireland were lost in viking raids.
Returning to modern Japan, since its founding in 1997 Sankt Gallen has grown to be one of the major Japanese craft breweries. They brew a solid standard line up of beers while also finding the time to experiment a bit. One thing they have been working on is special beers for Valentines Day. Japanese sweets makers have separated the chocolatey expressions of love that we call Valentine’s day into two holidays. We have Valentine’s Day on February 14th and White Day on March 14th. In February women are supposed to give the man in their life some chocolate, which will then be reciprocated in March. This way the candy companies get to sell double the candy! A lot of brewers have stepped into this game with chocolate beer, a perfect gift for the beer drinking-chocolate hating salary man. Sankt Gallen has made a Valentine’s Day name for themselves by producing holiday chocolate stouts. Some of the fruit and chocolate combination stouts seem to be of a lesser quality, but the February only 8.6% Imperial Chocolate Stout is reputed to be very good. It is not made with any actual chocolate, but instead uses specially roasted malts to impart a nice chocolatey flavor.
Sankt Gallen achieved international recognition last year with a coffee stout that used Black Ivory coffee. This is a coffee that is made with beans that have passed through an elephant. Yes, that is correct, beans that were eaten, digested, and then excreted out by a Thai elephant. Apparently the coffee itself sells for about $50 a cup, which is something to remember when complaining about the prices at the local Starbucks. I personally don’t find the thought of elephant poo coffee beer to be terribly appetizing, but I readily admit that it makes an excellent publicity stunt. The only English language account of drinking the punnily named Un Kono Kuro (It can either be read as This Black Thing or Shit Black) that I could find reported that the beer itself was quite delicious, but (un)fortunately I will never be able to confirm that as it sold out very quickly. Though it seems that Denmark based Mikkeller makes a similar beer that uses civet cat poop coffee , so perhaps I can track that down someday and give it a try.
Chocolate beers and elephant dung aside, what about beer you can actually buy on a normal day? Well, I managed to find three Sankt Gallen brews here in Gunma, the Kansha Black, Kansha Gold and Pale Ale. I really liked all three of them. I started off with the Kansha Black Porter, and it was delicious. Toasty chocolaty malts dominated, leading to a complex and well rounded beer. As far as personal preference goes I usually prefer lighter, hoppier beers, but I really loved this porter and would be glad to add it to my regular rotation.
Speaking of lighter and hoppier beers, the Pale Ale was also very well done. I found it a well balanced take on the American style. It was nicely hopped with a good aroma and flavor but with a solid malt underpinning. It was very drinkable. The final one I had the chance to try was the Kansha Gold, a Golden Ale. This too was a very good expression of a venerable style. The malt sweetness and hop bitterness was well balanced, and there were some really nice fruity ale flavors. It was a bit crisper than a more typical Belgian Golden Ale, which I liked. I enjoy Belgian beer, but I often prefer a cleaner flavor profile to the sometimes funkier Belgian offerings. The Kansha Gold was perfect for me. I really enjoyed all three of these beers, and I look forward to digging a little deeper into Sankt Gallen’s lineup the next chance I get. Luckily Sankt Gallen is one of the more widespread Japanese Craft brewers. In addition to hiding out in department store basements Sankt Gallen attends the major beer festivals. This includes both the Spring and Fall versions of the Keyaki Beer festival in Omiya and the German style Fruehlingsfest in May in Yokohama. Their beers also show up on tap at beer bars like Popeye and DevilCraft.
Have you ever tried any Sankt Gallen? What did you think? Would you try beer made with elephant poo coffee?