The Great British Saison Taste-Off

Saison bottles in a row.

Since April, we’ve tried a ton of different British-brewed saisons and selected eight for our final taste-off. Now, at last, we have our top three.

We won’t make you wait — they are, in order of preference:

  1. BrewDog Electric India — 5.2%, available April-June — tasting notes 30/04/2015
  2. Cheddar Ales Firewitch — 4.8% — tasting notes 06/08/2015
  3. Weird Beard Saison 14 — 5.6%, an ‘occasional brew’ — tasting notes 29/07/2015

Beers which tasted great in the ‘heats’ didn’t necessarily stand up to the competition — Wild Beer Co’s Epic, Ilkley Siberia and Mad Hatter Rhubarb Custard seemed rough-edged by comparison with some of their peers and, in no particular order, came at the bottom.

Brew By Numbers 01/08 Lemon & Wai-Iti and Burning Sky Saison à la Provision (our one gusher) were middle-rankers — both clearly interesting and characterful beers we’d happily drink but, again, with downsides apparent in this company. Saison à la Provision in particular felt like a test of our mettle — a sour, intense beer we might be able to appreciate when we’ve got another 10 years experience, perhaps?

Saison Dupont, snuck in as a control, did well, as you might expect, but didn’t come top — it took third place in our original line-up.

And Weird Beard, though a cut above, was not a shoo-in for the top three until Dupont was removed from the final ranking.

Bottle caps from winning saisons.

What Defines British Saison?

All these beers had a remarkable family resemblance when tasted together, even as herbs, spices, fruits and unusual processes gave each its own character.

That is, we think, because (a) all of them have the same handful of beers as inspiration and/or (b) most of them use the same handful of commercial yeast strains, the vast majority of which are either derived from Dupont’s or designed to mimic it. (But it might also be because we showed bias towards Dupont-alikes in the initial rounds of tasting.)

This time round, we tended to prefer beers that were less alcoholic than the best-known Belgian examples — not sessionable, exactly, but at strengths we could conceive of consuming by the pint in a pub. Our top three were all fairly un-experimental, whatever their labels might say about peppercorns and IPA, which leads us to conclude that perhaps saison isn’t as good a canvas for ‘mucking about’ as many seem to think: Dupont-style fluffy and yellow saison, being pretty near perfect, doesn’t need wacky twists, though it benefits from a bit of gentle EQ to bring out subtle highs and lows.

Saisons in plastic cups lined up on the table.

How the taste-off worked

Having stored the beers in a box in a cool dark place we gave them four hours to chill before serving. We tossed a coin and Bailey got the job of serving. He numbered each bottle and then poured each beer into a tumbler with the corresponding number on the bottom. He took notes on how they poured as he went — one of them gushed very badly, for example.

He took them to the table where Boak shuffled the pack. We agreed that, on the first run through, we wouldn’t talk and would try not to pull faces indicating ‘DELICIOUS!’ or ‘YUCK!’.

This was about as ‘blind’ as we could make the test without hiring a waiter for the evening.

After a first pass, we each nominated beers for demotion — those that seemed notably less enjoyable. A second pass highlighted candidates for promotion. Then we kept tasting, sipping water, and moving beers around until we were certain we had the ranking correct. We wrote brief notes on each beer and then revealed the names, at which point we removed Dupont from the rankings and gave its spot to the next British beer in line.

Disclosure: We were sent the BrewDog beer as a sample, along with several others; the first bottle of Mad Hatter Rhubarb & Custard was sent free of charge by online retailer Beer Hawk, but we bought the bottle used in this taste-off ourselves; Burning Sky supplied two bottles of Saison à la Provision; though we bought the Cheddar Ales saison discussed here, they have recently sent us a sample of another beer from their range.

7 thoughts on “The Great British Saison Taste-Off”

  1. really must try the fire witch. Spotted bottle of it in bag o’nails at weekend but was swayed by a chorlton ahtanum sour instead and didn’t have time for another.

  2. Which was the gusher? I’ve found every Weird Beard bottle I’ve had has been hugely over-carbonated. Up to about 6 now – have pretty much stopped buying them for that reason, which is a shame, as their beers are great.

    1. It’s hidden in the text — it was the Burning Sky beer. (Which has too many accents to type out…) BrewDog, Wild Beer and Mad Hatter notably high carbonation; Weird Beard absolutely fine.

  3. Burning Sky saisons are notably unapologetic about challenging your palate in a good way.

    I love the funkiness, but it’s past a threshold where I would recommend without reservation.

  4. You don’t say what you especially liked about the #1/winner from Brew Dog? What made it stand out?

    1. Owen — our original tasting notes are here; I suppose we could have added a few words above but, in short, it was just a little more vibrant/likeable/zingy compared to the nearest competitors, even though it was pretty similar to them in most ways.

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