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.

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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.

Saisons Pt 9: We Lied, But This Really Is it

This is absolutely, positively, really the last of the UK-brewed saisons we’re planning to taste before the big final ‘taste off’ and the subject is Cheddar Ales Firewitch.

“Seriously — this is still going!?” We meant to wrap up before we took our month off but… didn’t. And then, mucking about in Somerset, we came across bottles of Firewitch, and realised we’d have to include it. That’s not least because Adrian Tierney-Jones told us we really ought to. (He has written about it here and, we believe, will be including it in his tasting session at GBBF.)

We bought three 500ml bottles of this 4.8% ABV beer @ £2.50 each from the tiny shop attached to Millwhite’s Cider Farm in Rooksbridge, Somerset, not far from where it is brewed. The first we drank the same day, without taking notes, but had a strong gut reaction: THIS IS GOOD STUFF.

Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters in 'ecto goggles'.
Beer-tasting apparatus.

Back home, several weeks later, with our protective beer-tasting and hint-and-note-recording apparatus in place, that reaction was the same. Even being poured into two glasses from one bottle, it stayed pretty clear — the haze in the photo above is mostly condensation — and was an appealing golden colour. The carbonation was high but there was no fizzing or gushing, and the head was almost chewily stable.

The backbone of this beer’s flavour is pithy, bracing, citric bitterness: grapefruit, we thought. (But not in the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing ‘juicy banger‘ sense — more as in ‘Blimey, this is a bit much at breakfast time!’). It might possibly be too bitter for some, in fact. There was also some dry-porridge-oat, bran-flake cereal character, and a touch of plain salt and pepper that it would be a bit much to call ‘spiciness’.

It wouldn’t quite pass for Belgian but nor is it a wacky ‘reinvention’ of anything — it’s just a solid, tasteful, practical beer that we could easily spend a whole evening drinking, especially given its very civilised alcoholic strength. It’s a definite contender.

Somerset and saison are a good match, we reckon. It’s an industrial-rural county where, in summer, dust, pollen and motorway pollution get in your throat. Cider can deal with that, of course, but beer with a touch of funk and a bit of fizz is perfect as well.

Next up in this series, a footnote: we’re going to taste a couple of Belgian saisons and some American ones to calibrate before the final event.

Saisons Pt 8: The Last Two

As we draw near the end of this series of posts reporting our experiences of tasting British-brewed saisons, we’ve abandoned any attempt at theming: the only thing these last two have in common is that we bought them both from Beer Ritz.

Before we get down to our brief tasting notes, here’s a reminder of what this is all about: we want to have a short list of three we can wholeheartedly recommend. So, while ‘Do we like it?’ is a good starting point, whether other people might like it is also important and, in practice, that means we’re not after madly left-field interpretations.

  • Durham Brewery Raspbeery [sic] Saison, 5.6% ABV, 500ml @ £4.20.
  • Weird Beard Saison 14, 6%, 500ml @ £3.52.

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Saisons Pt 7: More Lemon, More Sour

This week, as part of our ongoing project, we tasted three UK-brewed saisons with no real connection other than that they’re from breweries we don’t really know well at all.

  • Hop Kettle Ginlemlii Thai Saison (330ml, 5.8% ABV, sent to us by @landells)
  • By The Horns Vive La Brett Saison-Brett (330ml, 6.1%, £2.56 from Ales by Mail)
  • Celt Hallstatt Deity Farmhouse Fruit Saison (330ml, 6.6%, £1.98)

The Red Lion is a pub in Cricklade, Wiltshire, with a small brewery on site operating under the name Hop Kettle. It is a favourite of Mark Landells who sent us three bottles of their saison because he was eager to see it included in our taste-off. First impressions were very good: it wasn’t a weird colour, didn’t smell weird, and poured a perfectly clear gold. The carbonation was fairly low but we managed to coax a decent head from the bottle without disturbing any yeast.

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