This is going to sound a little hackneyed starting off a review like this, but I’m going to say it anyway: Rohan is the best beer bar in Niigata prefecture.
What an appropriate name: Rohan. Nothing goes together like beer and Lord of the Rings. Just the idea brings a smile to my face and arouses the happy urge to sink a battle axe into the soft skulls of all my favorite enemies. So with that imagery in mind and before we talk more about the wonders of this humble establishment, let’s get this out of the way: Rider’s of Rohan! Now is the hour! For tonight we ride together to the ruin and the world’s end!
Alas … stop me there. The truth is there’s no relation to Lord of the Rings. Rohan was not inspired by Middle-earth’s grassland realm of equestrian knights; it was named after a manga comic and its effeminate pink-clad hero (which is decidedly less cool). Nevertheless, Rohan is the kind of place you’d expect to find Middle-earthlings; where fists of frothy ale slam hard on oak tables; where bearded men guffaw heartily and deliver welt-raising backslaps. This is how I at least fancy it, for this is the brand of excitement Rohan fosters in lovers of good beer. Rohan, my friends, has plenty.
Stepping into Rohan, you’re greeted by Hiro, the tenchou, who took over the business in mid-2011, bringing with him youthful energy and an impressive new beer roster. Inside, it’s open and airy with big windows for walls and the air of authenticity, making for a good environment to drink at ease, get up, move around and talk to unsuspecting-though-most-often-willing neighbors. There are many seating options from the bar to the more intimate couch nooks and, for bigger parties, long wooden tables. Take a seat and the staff will begin serving all sorts of unasked-for goodies, like beer samplers, homemade jerky and other tasty morsels from the kitchen. To be sure, there’s great food too, but that’s outside the scope of this article. We’re here to talk about beer.
Oh boy, oh boy, inside those tall double-door refrigerators is some of the finest beer on the planet. I’m talking real beer; beer of craft, bold ingredients, richness, depth and nuance. Beer made with sincerity and love of the making. Beer that challenges your taste buds and makes you think. Beer, I say! How is something so rare available here in Japan’s remote west, you ask? We have the Nagano Trading Company to thank for this, but all that really matters is that it’s here. Thank you, globalized commodity markets.
Now let’s get specific. You’ll find some of America’s premier west coast breweries, including Stone, Rogue and Lagunitas. Try Stone’s Green Tea IPA, a three-way collaboration with Japan’s Ishii and Baird breweries, where proceeds go to the Tohoku rehabilitation effort. Also, keep an eye out for anything Moylan’s. With real beer you’ll notice the higher price tags, but let me just say it’s worth it. I won’t go into how they average 8% ABV, come in big beautiful poetry-inscribed bottles or how the flavors will blow your mind. I’ll also spare you my rant on how six jyokki’s of nama-biiru will put you back 3000 yen and make you piss all night. Quantity or quality, you’ll leave with just as big a dent in your wallet, but only real beer will leave you satisfied and, dare I say, enriched.
Fine European breweries make appearances, including Denmark’s Mikkeller and Scotland’s BrewDog. Try BrewDog’s Tokyo if you’re feeling ambitious—it’s a dark, almost syrupy libation with hints of dates and coffee, and at 18.2% ABV it will certainly make for a fun night. For newbies, I recommend Mikkeller’s fruity and refreshing Single Hop Apollo IPA. Order it for your girlfriend or your boss who professes in the complex interplay of Heineken’s bubbles and water. Not overpowering and with a subtly sweet finish, consider Apollo a gateway beer.
Asahi, Suntory, Kirin and, you too, Sapporo, come here and sit down—this is an intervention. For too long you’ve been drowning this country in flat flavors and a sheer lack of inspiration. The Japanese people have nurtured you and watched you grow, but enabling they shall no more. It’s time for a reinvention.
A few Niigata microbreweries have heard this call and taken the reigns on ushering in a new era of Japanese beer. Swan Lake and Echigo, for example, have turned out seriously respectable brews in the twenty years since a change in tax laws allowed small time breweries to operate within their means—and Rohan gives them a well-deserved spotlight. Swan Lake, in particular, has been doing interesting things with yeast and barley, as with the Koshihikari Lager, which is brewed with, you guessed it, Niigata’s beloved koshihikari rice. I also recommend Swan Lake’s Belgian IPA and the Imperial Stout, the latter of which taps up late winter.
Good craft is by no means limited to Niigata. Standouts from other prefectures include Shizuoka’s Baird Brewery, Osaka’s Minoh and Sapporo’s North Island. Arguably Japan’s best IPA, I encourage anyone who’s curious to try North Island’s India Pale Ale. With an excellent hop profile and a strong malt backbone, this is one of the most fully-conceived beers in the country. (More on North Island and other domestic breweries in future posts.)
Rohan holds periodic parties and events too. In January 2012, Rohan got festive with Stone Winter Storm, tapping up six of Stone’s finest to ring in the New Year. More recently, a group of Japanese hop-heads got together for a beer-tasting, complete with an appearance by Swan Lake’s brewmaster. From experience, I can tell you these are a great way to break bread with locals and try new drinks. For problem-drinkers in need of an excuse, think of it as cultural exchange. If you’re interested in more information or would like to take part in future events, check out Rohan’s Facebook page.
I understand some people aren’t “beer people” or “don’t really like beer.” To me, that’s like saying you don’t really like music. But perhaps the problem is you’ve never had the real thing, in which case Rohan offers a great opportunity to discover the true pleasure of beer. For longtime aficionados, Rohan is a savior. A therapist. A reason to stay another year. When the dark clouds of Mordor (Yahiko) descend and you feel the Uruk-hai (students) closing in, let Rohan bolster your spirits so you can march forth with confidence.
- Location: Five minute walk from Niigata Station’s Bandai Exit, next to Benten Park.
- Hours: 17:00 – 1:00 Weekdays 17:00 – 2:00 Weekends