Saison Season Pt 2: The Herbalist

When we announced our plans to taste a bunch of UK-brewed saisons, several people told us we had to try The Herbalist, a collaboration between Magic Rock and Adnams, and so Adnams sent us some (10 litres!) in mini-casks.

We’re not sure it really fits this project — it’s a one-off seasonal, so there’s not much point in us recommending it (more on this general issue in a future post); and it’s a draught rather than bottled beer. But of course we were keen to try it and, as it happens, it did prompt some relevant thoughts.

Continue reading Saison Season Pt 2: The Herbalist

‘Back of a Beer Mat': a Free e-Book

We’ve taken some of our favourite, more substantial posts from the last few years, tidied them up, and put them together as a free e-book, Back of a Beer Mat: Bits from the Blogavailable via Smashwords.

'Back of a Beer Mat' cover design.If you’re a regular reader of this blog, there won’t be much that’s new to you, although the introduction is exclusive, and there are a couple of ‘bonus tracks’ — that is, articles which have appeared elsewhere.

It contains 18,500 words in total which makes it about  a quarter of the length of Brew Britannia, and the two formats available (‘mobi’ and ‘epub’) should work with most readers and apps.

We hope it might be of interest to people who don’t cotton to reading on computer screens and so might not otherwise have discovered us but, as it’s free, you’d be daft not to download a copy in case you find yourself stuck for something to read on a train journey or while waiting for someone in the pub.

(And of course we’d really appreciate it if you can tell your friends, share the link via Twitter and Facebook, and so on.)

News, Nuggets & Longreads 18/04/2015

Here’s what’s been what in the world of beer in the last seven days.

→ It’s been well shared but, just in case you’ve missed it, for the Morning Advertiser, Pete Brown took a balanced view of the question of UK craft beer pricing, arguing that though a big price tag on imports might be justified, some bars are simply exploiting consumers’ expectations that craft = expensive.

→ Richard ‘Beercast’ Taylor considered whether branding and brand confusion — the source of so much strife in the beer world in recent years — is as important to consumers as it is to the industry:

He asked for the wrong brand and got a beer he was probably expecting anyway. The main underlying point is… does any of this actually matter? He got a beer, Tennent’s got the sale and the Caley got the brand recognition.

→ Here’s your epic longread for the week: 3,500 words from Stephen Beaumont and Tim Webb on ‘The State of the Beer World’ for All About Beer magazine. (It’s not actually spread over three pages — those second two pages are ‘box out’ asides, but also worth a read.) We’re going to spoil it by quoting from the final paragraph:

Belgium is no longer the promised land of ale, Munich is not the hub of all things lagered and, despite what Michael Jackson once said, the United States is no longer the most exciting place in the world for beer.

→ This piece by Paul Bailey (no relation) on what happened after Ridley’s of Essex sold out to Greene King highlights something we’ve also observed: family brewers can be surprisingly sentimental, despite occasional evidence of their commercial ruthlessness.

→ This week’s reminder that beer culture still has some growing up to do around making women feel genuinely welcome came from Heather Vandenengel, prompted by Carla Jean Lauter on Twitter:

The reality is that dealing with casually and overtly sexist men who don’t respect women is something that all women of all industries and backgrounds deal with all the time, in both their personal and professional lives. It’s no different in craft beer.

→ On a somewhat related note, it’s the Campaign for Real Ale Annual General Meeting this weekend, the agenda for which is summarised by Tandleman here, but where, despite Barm’s best efforts, the problem of sexism in the UK beer industry won’t be up for discussion.

→ For the Guardian, Steven Poole wrote about why the tendency to tweeness in the blurb on food and drink packaging is pissing him off.

[A] ready-meal lasagne is “created with love in our kitchen”. (Is this kitchen, perhaps, the exact shape and size of a small factory?) A brand of snack bars is made “in small batches at our own makery”. Makery? I am guessing that “makery” is a portmanteau for “made-up bakery”.

(Via @PJMcKerry.)

→ And this was our favourite Tweet of the week:

Saison Season Pt1: Lemonheads

This first batch of UK-brewed saisons in our new series of tastings are connected loosely by their inclusion of lemon, or lemongrass, and all three just happen to be from London.

They were purchased from Ales by Mail:

  • Partizan Lemongrass (pictured above) — 3.8%, 330ml, £2.09.
  • Partizan Lemon & Thyme — 3.9%, 330ml, £2.09.
  • Brew by Numbers 01/08 Lemon & Wai-Iti — 6.2%, 330ml, £2.29.

With yesterday’s post in mind, we were looking for the herbs and fruit added to these beers to be noticeable without overriding, and to be integrated into the beer rather than seeming like a shot of fruit squash.

Partizan Lemongrass poured beautifully bright with a persistent but gentle fizz, and was ultra-pale with a pure white head. From the off, opinion was divided: one of us ‘Ugh!’-ed as the other ‘Ooh!’-ed. ‘It smells like washing up liquid,’ said Boak, while Bailey was reminded of fruit tea. The dispute continued as we tasted as, for Boak, the lemongrass was a touch too dominant and brought with it a persistent suggestion of savouriness, while Bailey had no such problem: ‘I could sink this by the pint and, if were in a pub, I might stick on it for the night.’  What we did agree on was that it didn’t much resemble any Belgian saison we’d ever tasted. In fact, despite the absence of wheat in the ingredients list and its crystal clarity, it tasted much more like a witbier (spicy, citrusy, a touch of pot-pourri). The disagreement means we can’t add it to our list of wholehearted recommendations.

We also disagreed about Partizan Lemon & Thyme, although less vehemently. We are both generally of the view that herbs commonly used to season chicken and lamb don’t really work in beer and this did not change our minds. Maybe slightly darker than its stable-mate, but not by much, it had a subdued aroma, with just a passing whiff of zest. The flavour was similarly restrained and brought to mind the kind of slightly astringent golden ales we used to find in ‘real ale’ pubs c.2008. But the thyme was there, giving an unwelcome sickly, savoury note. Boak fundamentally disliked it, while Bailey found it drinkable, though not so much that he’s desperate for another any time soon.

Finally, saving the biggest for last, there was Brew by Numbers Lemon & Wai-Iti — an immediate hit with both of us. (Phew — partnership saved!) It poured clear-to-hazy and, again, very pale. As far as we know, this is our first encounter with Wai-Iti hops and we’re not sure whether it was them, the lemon or a combination of both which provided an aroma reminiscent of Thai pomelo salad. At any rate, it was enticing and faintly enigmatic. Something about the weight of the body and the flavour combined to give a first impression on tasting of milkiness — or was it coconut milk, specifically? Or an Indian lassi? That smooth, almost creamy quality was balanced by an insistent bitterness which lingered and built in the mouth, layer on layer. As with beer #1, we’re not entirely sure saison is the right designation as this too seems to have more in common with witbier. It certainly offers something different to Saison Dupont, and is quirky without being ‘silly’. It’s a definite contender.

We came away from this session with a couple of questions:

  1. Why is wit less cool than saison? Is it Hoegaarden’s fault? Or is it because wit was hip 25 years ago while saison is still, in the broader scheme of things, obscure?
  2. Is citrus, in fact, the defining characteristic of a wit and, if so, does it have any place in a saison?

Next up: because, astonishingly, there is more than one on the market, two saisons with rhubarb, and one with gooseberries.

Gimmick or Twist?

Ahead of our saison tasting spree (first batch tonight) we’ve been thinking about the place of herbs, spices and fruit in beer.

Back in February, Masterchef winner and Japanese food expert Tim Anderson wrote a post suggesting some obscure citrus fruits to use in brewing:

I understand that there’s something irresistible about yuzu, but if everybody uses it then it loses some of its appeal. I fear we may have reached ‘peak yuzu.’

(There’s nothing to make you feel uncool like reading that something you’ve only vaguely heard of is already played out.)

He gives a reason, in passing, for why you might want to use obscure fruits: to make ‘a dish or a beer exotic and intriguing’, which additive-sceptics might read as different for the sake of being different — what’s wrong with beer that tastes like beer?

So, there is a question of motive, which probably, or maybe, coincides with the success of the experiment. A brewer who is trying to meet demand for a ‘new’ beers by chucking cinnamon or maple syrup into base products (a problem in ‘real ale’ before it became a problem in ‘craft beer’) will inevitably turn out a few duds where the Guest Starring additive clashes or overrides.

On the other hand, a beer that is thoughtfully designed and carefully developed, where the left-field flavour is brewed in rather than merely added at the end, may well do a better job of truly integrating it into the finished product. Camden’s Gentleman’s Wit isn’t to everyone’s taste, but the bergamot that is its unique selling point is not clumsily done, and does, indeed, add a twist which makes the beer intriguing, without surrendering its essential beerness.

When Lars Marius Garshol wrote about traditional herbs in Norwegian farmhouse brewing earlier this week, he reminded us that such additives aren’t a trendy new thing. We were particularly taken by his description of Myrica gale:

Home brewer Micro Maid made a Myrica beer for the Norwegian home brewing championship last year that won the prize for Audience Favourite. She used leaves picked in the forest, crushed in a kitchen blender, 23 grams for 26 liters of beer, boiled for 25 minutes. I tried the beer, and it really was excellent, with a lovely fruity flavour, not entirely unlike lime or yuzu.

Maybe the reason this seems, to us, less gimmicky than some such experiments is because it is in some sense historically and regionally authentic?

If all that matters is how the beer tastes, as some insist, then the brewer’s motives, or the authenticity of the additives, is neither here nor there, but we suspect that brewers who consider why they’re using a particular ingredient — who think about what the story is — might just generally be more careful and thoughtful, which tends to lead to better beer.

And if you’re a brewer (pro or at home) and you need more ideas than those provided by Tim and Lars, here’s Stan Hieronymus’s hot tip:

Main image adapted from ‘Fruit’ by Nils Dehl, from Flickr, under Creative Commons.

Over-thinking beer, pubs and the meaning of craft since 2007