QUICK REVIEW: Small Saison With German Hops and a British Accent

Among our most recent grab-bag of interesting looking beers was Brew By Numbers Huell Melon Table Saison 17|07 which we bought at £2.79 for 330ml from Beer Hawk.

We find Brew By Numbers slightly frustrating: they’re responsible for some great stuff, and some not so great, which makes buying their beer a gamble. We have tended to enjoy their pale Belgian-inspired beers most, though, and found the idea of a 3.5% ABV saison made with an unusual, relatively new German hop variety irresistible.

It looked vaguely Champagne-like in the glass, with touches of pink, herbal green and gold depending on how the light caught it.

We didn’t detect the melon aromas for which the hop variety is known, and after which it is named, or too much aroma at all beyond a snatch of wild, catty hedgerow flowers.

The body was thin, not far from watery, the emphasis being on ‘table’ rather than ‘saison’. (Historically saisons were light, refreshing beers but these days, with Dupont as the role model, tend to be more like 6.5% and richer tasting.) Did it also taste a bit like… Aspirin? There was some mineral bite anyway, ever so slightly jarring. But once we’d adjusted to the reality of the situation we began to revel in the spicy, bitter, tonic spritziness of it all. It’s a blunt beer, one-dimensional really, but that’s not necessarily bad news — you might also call it focused, or straightforward, or even minimalistic.

The only real problem is — and bear in mind that we’re not pints-only dogmatists — that it really wants to be drunk in greater volume, rather than sipped. Even, perhaps, sloshed out of a five-pint jug, in a farmyard or field.

On further reflection, we decided that if we’d been given it blind and asked to categorise it by style we reckon we’d have filed it under pale’n’hoppy English ale rather than saison, which is odd when you think of its resolutely European DNA.

The final verdict? We liked it and would drink it again, especially on a thirsty summer day.

Discomfort Beer — Saison, Tripel, Brett and Kriek

‘Access01’ by David Bleasdale from Flickr under Creative Commons.

These are our instructions from Alec Latham, the host of this edition of the monthly beer blogging jamboree:

‘For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.’

The example Alec gives in his own post is Thornbridge Wild Raven, the first black IPA he’d ever tried, and in the broadest terms, there’s the answer: any new style will probably wrong-foot you the first time you come across it. You might even say the same of entire national brewing traditions.

‘Discomfort’ is an interesting word for Alec to choose because the feeling we think he’s describing is as much social anxiety as it is purely about the beer: other people like this, but I don’t — am I being stupid? Am I missing something?

Partizan Lemongrass Saison.

We grappled with saison for years, for example. Michael Jackson wrote about it so eloquently and enthusiastically, as did Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn, and many others, but we didn’t get it. How could we match up those tantalising tasting notes with the fizzy Lucozade beers we kept finding in Belgian bars in London? Maybe the experts were just wrong — a worrying thought. We could have simply given up but we kept trying until something clicked. Now we not only understand saison (with, say, 65 per cent confidence) but also know which particular ones we do and don’t like.

Over the years we’ve been similarly disgusted or nonplussed by Belgian tripels, specifically Chimay White which just tasted to us like pure alcohol back in 2003; and also by Brettanomyces-influenced beers — Harvey’s Imperial, now one of our favourites, appalled us the first few times we tried it, and Orval left us cold until quite recently. (We are now fanpersons.)

In each case, the discomfort was worth it, like practising a musical instrument until your fingers hurt, because it opened up options and left us with a wider field of vision.

The flipside to Alec’s proposition, of course, is that some beers are immediately appealing but perhaps become tarnished with experience. The first time we were ever dragged to an obscure pub by an excited friend it was to drink Timmerman’s fruit beers from Belgium which we now find almost too sweet to bear. Comfort turns to discomfort, delight to queasiness.

The sense of taste is an unstable, agile, mischievous thing that you can never quite tame.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 20 August 2016: Ribbeltje, Gasholders and Serebryanka

Here’s all the writing about beer, pubs, beer glasses and gasholders that’s caught our eye in the last week.

Barm (@robsterowski) breaks the oddly sad news that the company behind Stella Artois is to cease serving its premium lager in so-called ribbeltje glasses in its native Belgium, going over instead to the fancier chalice design:

As is widely known, despite the brewer’s attempt to punt it in other countries as a ‘reassuringly expensive’ premium beer, in Belgium Stella is the bog standard café beer, with a basic, proletarian glass to match. This, of course, is precisely why the marketers hate the glass so much. It’s not chic enough for their pretensions.


Dandelion saison in the glass.
SOURCE: Ales of the Riverwards

With a cameo appearance from just such a glass, Ed Coffey at Ales of the Riverwards has been reflecting on foraged ingredients and his idea for dandelion saison is simple and, we think, rather brilliant. Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 20 August 2016: Ribbeltje, Gasholders and Serebryanka”

The Great British Saison Taste-Off

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.

Continue reading “The Great British Saison Taste-Off”

Saisons: Prelude to Finale

We’ve set aside tomorrow evening for the final saison taste-off but, just for context, have tried a couple of US and Belgian takes on the style in the last week.

Anchor Saison (USA, £3.16 for 350ml from Beer Ritz, 7.2% ABV), also labelled as ‘Spring Ale’, was a disaster: hotly alcoholic, too clove-heavy, with a general excess of bitter spices. The clove character is, it seems, from the yeast but the recipe also contains ginger, lemongrass and lemon peel. It just needs toning down, or at least pulling together so it doesn’t rattle so much.

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace (USA, £3.68, 355ml from Beer Ritz, 7.6%), on the other hand, is one of the most immediately exciting beers we’ve tasted in a while. Rather than by-the-book amber/gold it is a beautiful pilsner-pale green-yellow, like Duvel. The headlining hop contributes lemon throughout and coconut at the end, enveloped in a feathery-light body. The yeast, firmly under control, didn’t seem to contribute much in the way of spice or funk, so perhaps the ‘saison-ness’ of this beer could be questioned. Duvel is the nearest equivalent, in fact — bright and light, Champagne-like, and one we’ll be drinking again.

We can’t see that Anchor’s effort has had much influence in the UK but Brooklyn’s must surely have something to do with the ubiquity of Sorachi Ace in British-brewed saisons. We’ll bear this in mind when we revisit our contenders in the finale.

* * *

Silly Saison (Belgium, £2.47, 330ml, 5%) is a beer we drank once or twice years ago and wrote-off as, frankly, grim. We wanted to revisit it as a reminder of how broadly ‘saison’ is applied in its native land and it certainly fulfilled that function. Red-brown and perfectly clear, it has a crystalline, Coca Cola quality which carries through to the taste: our first thought was malt loaf, then acrid cold tea, and, finally, thanks to a prompt from Martyn on Twitter, raisins. (When you soak raisins in tea to make bara brith — that!) We still think it’s too sweet and were left wondering how a beer can be both bland and weirdly nasty at the same time.

Finally, back to the Sgt. Pepper of saisons: Saison Dupont (£2.83, 330ml, 6.5%). After several months of challengers and wannabes, this was almost a relief: it is just perfect. Drying, a little flowery, alternately crisp and luscious, full of interesting details without any one facet dominating. If we could fault it, we might say the bitterness was just a touch blunt, but then that might have been a hangover from the sickly Silly.

In the final taste-off we will, of course, have Dupont in mind — how could we not? — but we’ll also remember Silly: saisons can be brown, and they can be sweet, and Dupont isn’t the only role model in town.