Epic Saison from Somerset

Detail of the Wild Beer Co logo.

We don’t know much about the Wild Beer Co. other than what we’ve picked up on Twitter, from their website and from other people’s blog posts, but the very idea of a brewery based in Somerset with the following philosophy blows our minds:

By adding a Wild 5th ingredient or process to our beers we are giving you a truly memorable drinking experience… Some of our beers will be aged in oak to allow the soft vanilla and rich tannins to help mature the beer, others fermented with wild yeast strains to add layers of flavour and complexity to the beer.

We are painfully aware, however, that many new generation breweries fail to live up to their own hype — though we’re not clever enough to entirely resist their allure, big ideas and nice branding aren’t everything — and so, seeing Wild Beer Co’s beer on offer in Bristol, approached with a little caution.

Thankfully, Epic Saison (5%, keg) was a triumph. First, it had that very distinctive yeast character (orange and lemon peel, exotic spices) we know from Dupont and Van Klomp, perhaps with the ‘pear drop’ channel turned up a notch; followed by a surprising, pleasing level of dry, chalky bitterness. After several days of ‘serious’ beer drinking, it was like a hard reset for the palate (© Simon H Johnson), reaching into every corner to shut down the systems before rebooting them. With steel toe-caps.

Beers like this — clean (but not too much so…), intelligently conceived, and distinctive without being silly — go some way to convincing us that homegrown ‘European-style’ beers might one day displace at least some of those weirdly cheap and usually superior imports.

We rather liked Butcombe’s flagship Bristol ‘craft beer’ pub the Colston Yard, by the way: their own Rare Breed, all but poisonous in bottles, tasted great there, and it was fascinating to watch earnest students working their way through bottles of Cantillon in a sort of inverted-macho drinking game.

Brewing Without Reference to Styles

We’ve just brewed a… something.

For once, we didn’t set out to make a tripel, an IPA or a stout — we just looked at the ingredients we had, thought about the beer we wanted to drink, and off we went.

It uses a Belgian saison yeast (because that’s the only one we had in) and borrows some aspects of our tripel recipe (because we liked how it turned out) but it doesn’t fit the parameters for an ‘average’ tripel as set out in Stan Hieronymus’s Brew Like a Monk, or those for a saison or ‘super saison’ given in Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski. It uses English pale malt (all we had), Tettnang hops (because… why not?) and a bit of white sugar.

We’re not claiming to have done anything especially innovative (although it does have some unusual secret spices) — all we’ve done is tinker with the variables a bit. It’s going to turn out to be a Belgian-inspired blonde beer of some description, and that won’t set the world alight.

But, still, it felt liberating. We’re going to do this more often.

Lots of commercial breweries defy or even define standard styles: Orval, for example, isn’t anything but Orval, love it or loathe it, and sits awkwardly among the other Trappist beers which have fallen into line with each other.

Many newer breweries, on the other hand, seem to us to trot out one of each from the recipe section in Homebrewing for Dummies and, for a bit of variety, take two standard styles and cross-breed them. The beer might great, but will this approach produce classics? Will it create genuinely new, individualistic, original beers?

Saison cracked?

Saison dupont beer in the glass with bottle

After our recent pondering on the nature of saison, several people, including Alan at A Good Beer Blog, suggested we read Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski. Thanks for the tip, chaps. It’s a great book and has, indeed, helped us ‘get it’.

It’s in the same series as Stan Hieronymus’s marvellous Brew Like a Monk and is designed to help home brewers understand the recipes and practices used by breweries currently producing biere de garde and saison. Even if you never intend to brew anything, if you love Belgian beer, these books are must-reads.

The centrepiece of Farmhouse Ales is an essay by brewer Yvan De Baets which attempts to summarise the history of saison and, crucially, explain what the heck it is. A key phrase occurs therein: saison, says De Baets, “has a small ‘wild side'”. He also cites a (primary) source suggesting that, in the late 1940s, saisons were very like what we would now call geuze.

At this point, something clicked for us. The idea of a spectrum with a point at which wild yeasts in the mix become evident makes a lot of sense, and also helps to explain why so many beers are described as “almost saison” or “saison like”. We slightly repurposed his phrase “wild side” and came up with this.

Diagram showing the relative wildness of various Belgian beers.

Ultimately, of course, it’s up to a brewery if they wish to call their beer a saison, hence some of the lucozade-like sugary beers flying that flag, and the idea of precise categories in this territory is a bit silly, but a beer just on the wild side — that is, with at a hint of wild yeast or ‘roughness’ without being downright sour — is probably what we would now understand to be a saison.

Now to drink some more of them and test this new understanding.

Is saison in the eye of the beholder?

The cap and cork from a bottle of Dupont Saison beer.

After several years of taking beer seriously, and more than four years of blogging about it, we still don’t really understand what saison is or why it has such status amongst beer geeks.

The first saison we tried, Saison 1900, was underwhelming (like Lucozade) but, everyone told us, we’d been drinking the wrong one. No-one rates 1900 much.

In their excellent book 100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die, Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn describe Saison Dupont as “either the last or the first of the great saisons”, and it was also the example recommended by our commenters back in 2008, so we decided to make that our subject for the next attempt to ‘get it’.

We had the big 750ml champagne-corked bottle which instantly made it feel special.

It is an extremely delicious beer. We picked up a hint of whatever aroma it is that wafts out of the open cellar door of an old pub — stale beer, rotting wood and mould? — and then lots of what you might call the usual suspects of Belgian beer flavours: coriander, bitter peels, sugar and dusty hops. It doesn’t contain coriander or peel, apparently, those flavours supposedly coming from the yeast.

It seemed a very clean beer to us.  We had expected a little wildness with all the talk of farmhouses and barns that surrounds saison.

So, yes, it’s great, but we’re still stumped. How is this different enough from the interesting ‘blondes’ that many Belgian breweries produce to warrant a different label? Is Poperings Hommelbier a saison? That’s what this most reminded us of.

Any suggestions for what we need to do to get our heads round this gratefully received. We’re beginning to feel like those people in the nineties who couldn’t see magic eye pictures.

Saison — what’s it all about?

Saison 1900 beer in the Dove pub, Hackney, London

I consider these beers [saisons] truly glorious and endlessly interesting. As with wheels of great artisanal cheese, every bottle of saison is very slightly different — it lives its own life, tells its own tale.”

Garrett Oliver, The Brewmaster’s Table

I’ve only had saison twice — the same one (1900) in the same pub (the Dove) two years apart.

That’s not enough data for me to work with in terms of understanding it as a type of beer.

1900 (like rather a lot of Belgian and French beers) has a somewhat overpowering burnt sugar flavour and, like Altbier, finishes with a kind of metallic, dry bitterness. Garrett Oliver isn’t kidding when he says it tastes better with food: I much prefered it once I’d eaten some flame grilled meat and some salty chips, when it seemed drier and less sickly.

But I’m not blown away. Is 1900 a rubbish example of this type of beer? If not, what am I missing? And if so, which others should I try instead?