The Mad Capper Reviews: Tokyo Black

Toyko Black glass and canThe highlight of this week’s review is Tokyo Black from the Yo-Ho Brewing Company located in the town of Karuizawa in the the mountainous prefecture of Nagano, Japan. Yo-Ho was established in 1996, shortly after an amendment to Japan’s liquor tax laws made possible the existence of smaller breweries. It is the largest craft brewer in the country and the sixth largest overall. The brewery specializes in ales, most notably an American pale ale, an American IPA, and a Belgian witbier.

Tokyo Black is a robust porter, a hoppier, roastier version of the more traditional brown porter from England. While Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil from a few weeks ago is also a porter broadly speaking, Tokyo Black is a much more typical example of the style: it has an ABV of 5%, a bitterness level of 34.5 IBUs, and an original gravity (OG) of 1.056. The ABV and OG also allow us to calculate the final gravity, which comes to 1.0179, indicating that Tokyo Black should have a slightly fuller body than usual.

Distinct from regular porters in their greater strength and more pronounced hops and roasted malt, robust porters typically feature moderately strong, lightly burnt malt, which may be rendered more complex through the use of multiple malt varieties, adding such flavors and aromas as coffee, toffee, and chocolate. The intensity of the hop flavor and bitterness can vary considerably and may come from either US or UK varieties. The color ranges from brown to virtually black.

To create a dark beer, brewers use a combination of malts roasted to different levels to achieve the desired color and taste. While the only piece of information made available by the brewery regarding Tokyo Black’s grain bill is that the malt is imported from England, it’s safe to assume that they use a pale malt base with chocolate malt, black patent malt, and/or roasted barley. Chocolate malt gives beer a deep ruby color and a dark chocolate flavor; black patent malt is used to darken beer and, in larger amounts, can make beer bitter, acrid, or even ashy; and roasted barley (unmalted) adds a deep mahogany color and a coffee flavor similar to French roast.

Yo-Ho’s water comes from volcanic Mt. Asama, whose subterranean streams provide rainwater and melted snow enriched with minerals such as calcium and magnesium, which are important nutrients for yeast. Calcium also serves other roles during brewing and is therefore highly desirable. The hops used in Tokyo Black are Cascade and Perle. Cascade is an all-purpose hop variety that is especially good for flavor and aroma and is flowery, spicy, and grapefruit-like. Perle is also an all-purpose variety that is minty, spicy, and refreshing. Incidentally, Perle is an acceptable substitute for Northern Brewer hops, the variety used in Anchor’s porter, another good example of today’s beer style.

Tasting: Tokyo Black glass

Tokyo Black pours a dark tan head and a pitch black body, just barely admitting light along the edges. The aroma is smoky and sweet with cocoa powder, dark berries, brown sugar, and bread crust. The flavor is roasty but smooth, lightly sweet and ashy with a mild puckering, woody astringency. The cool, woodsy hops become more prominent over time. The finish is light and grainy. It has a medium body, low carbonation, and a slight mineral texture, striking a delicate balance between body and bite.

Tokyo Black is just an all-around nice beer. After a while, it starts to thin out and taste of old coffee while the hops take over, but I’ve found that to be the case with many stouts and porters. For that reason, the pleasantly flavorful hops are welcome. And while the overall flavor is nice enough, it doesn’t quite share the complexity and richness of the aroma.

Today’s beer was purchased at Yamaya in Ota, Gunma. In Japan, Yo-Ho’s products can be purchased online and in grocery stores, convenience stores, and other retail outlets. Their products are also shipped overseas to the U.S., Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia.

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