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.
Though he has asked for people to think specifically about the last ten years, and to choose ‘an obscure style you don’t find in very many places’, we couldn’t resist getting historical and looking at what was arguably the first such resurrection of the modern era: Porter.
In the mid-1970s, it had become extinct, having been hard to find for some decades before that, but was brought back to life by one of the first of the new band of what later came to be known as microbreweries. Because the 100th Session is a special occasion, and with the kind permission of our publishers, Aurum Press, we’ve decided to share a slightly edited extract from chapter four of our book Brew Britannia that tells the story.
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Another sign that the ‘real ale revolution’ was seriously under way appeared with the arrival, also in 1977, of Britain’s first celebrity brewery. It was foreshadowed by the revelation, in the previous year, that two of Britain’s best-known entertainers, even then on the path to becoming ‘national treasures’, were real-ale devotees:
Two men who think that real ale is Something Completely Different are stalwart Monty Python writers and actors Terry Jones and Michael Palin . . . The busy pair . . . are lovers of traditional beer and always carry the Good Beer Guide with them . . . It is a much-thumbed document, for location shooting takes the team to some obscure parts of the country.
This should not have come as a surprise to anyone who had seen Palin in the famous 1974 ‘travel agent’ sketch in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in which Eric Idle delivers a ranting monologue with repeated disparaging references to Watney’s Red Barrel. Of the two, Terry Jones was the more enthusiastic about beer. When his accountant, Michael Henshaw, introduced him to another of his clients, Richard Boston, they entered into partnership on two projects. First, an ‘alternative’ magazine, The Vole, to be edited by Boston; and second, a brewery, which they initially intended to open in Berkshire. Boston announced the project in What’s Brewing in January 1977:
There are a number of free houses in the area that might take our beer. We have found a farmhouse with sheds that could be converted into a brewery . . . We have got the capital and the place – all we need is a dissatisfied brewer working for some anonymous combine who would like to run and plan his own business, explore retail outlets and work with us to see if the scheme is viable.
[Peter Austin] saw Boston’s cry for help and abandoned a failing sea-angling business in Hampshire to design and build a brewery. By this time, Terry Jones had become acquainted with businessman Martin Griffiths, who in 1972 had bought a ramshackle medieval farmhouse, Penrhos Court in Herefordshire, for £5,000 and turned it into a successful restaurant. The plan to brew in Berkshire was abandoned, and Austin was set to work in the farm buildings at the back of the property.
I remember the first brew very well. It was five o’clock one morning with bats flying about as we got up. It was the last possible day for brewing because the grand opening had to be before Terry Jones went to America . . . We got the mash in at six. The plumbers were ahead of us connecting up the next vessel. By 8 a.m. we were in the copper – it took hours to get it to boil . . . It was a twenty-hour marathon in all, but we did it.
The brewery was officially opened on Saturday, 16 July 1977, with Michael Palin, a compulsive diarist with an eye for detail, in attendance.
At Hereford Station by one. A minibus drives us to Penrhos Court . . . The beer is tasted and found to be good. Jones’ First Ale it’s called – and at a specific gravity of 1050 it’s about as devastating as Abbot Ale. But the weather has decided to be kind to us and the collection of buildings that is Penrhos Court – basically a fine, but run-down sixteenth-century manor house with outbuildings housing the brewery, restaurant and Martin Griffiths’ office and living accommodation – look well in the sunshine and provide a very amenable background to the serious beer-drinking.
Jones’s primary contribution seems to have been publicity. He opened the 1977 CAMRA Great British Beer Festival at Alexandra Palace. In his opening address, he said that beer shouldn’t be tasted, like wine, before dumping six pints of beer over his own head. This ‘showing off’ won coverage in several newspapers and a front-page photo in What’s Brewing. Jones, a globally renowned film director and comedian, was by far the hippest celebrity to lend his name to the Campaign: subsequent festivals were opened, with rather less glamour, by Labour minister Roy Hattersley and TV naturalist David Bellamy.
Jones seems to have spent much of this period wearing a Penrhos Ale branded sweatshirt, and, by 1978, it had paid off, and he declared the brewery a success: ‘It can’t be all that bad . . . After all, we’ve only been going for six months and already fourteen pubs are buying the stuff from us. And selling it.’
Penrhos wasn’t just a bit of celebrity dabbling, though. For one thing, it gave Peter Austin the opportunity to test himself before building not only his own brewery, Ringwood, in 1978, but also many more in Britain and around the world. For another, it was the first brewery to revive a type of beer which had last been brewed in 1973 – porter, the dark beer upon which British brewing dynasties had been established in the eighteenth century and from which stout was descended. Being extinct gave porter a certain mystique, and its very name evoked a romantic image of the nineteenth century at a time when books such as Kellow Chesney’s The Victorian Underworld were best-sellers.
Porter also offered something different – it was black and robust when, back then, most ‘real ale’ was brown bitter. Penrhos’s ‘dark, pleasant’ example was the surprise hit of the 1978 Great British Beer Festival, and was soon followed by a much sweeter version by Timothy Taylor of Keighley in Yorkshire, based on an 1873 recipe. When a cask of that went on sale at the Eagle, the CAMRA Real Ale Investments pub in Leeds, it sold out in less than three days. The excitement with which these unusual beers were greeted signalled a long, slow return to diversity in British brewing.
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.
As our stash of UK-brewed saisons runs low, it gets harder to find a connecting theme: what this last bunch have in common, at least according to their labels, is the absence of headlining (important word) herbs and spices.
Otley Saison Obscura — 5.5%, 500ml, usually £2.79.
Bad Seed Saison — 6%, 330ml, usually £2.59.
We first encounted ‘nomadic’ brewers Wiper & True not long after they had started up in 2012 when Bailey’s brother picked up a gift set of their beers. We’ve tried various of their brews since and haven’t quite been convinced, though we’ve found them far better on draught in Bristol than in bottles at home. This one-off saison is part of a series and has an admirably detailed label which looks as if it ought to be attached to a clipboard in a hospital, providing information on hop varieties, malts and even which yeast strain has been used — ‘House saison blend’.
In its 44 years of existence, the Campaign for Real Ale has had a more complicated relationship with lager than cries of ‘fizzy piss’ from some members might have you believe.
In the early 1970s, no-one in the Campaign was thinking much about lager at all, its energy being focused almost entirely on battling keg bitters from Watneys et al. The very first issue of What’s Brewing (WB), however, did carry an advertisement for an excursion to the Munich Oktoberfest organised by one of the founders, the bespectacled and hawkish Graham Lees.
Another keen traveller with a far from parochial attitude was Richard Boston, the author, from 1973 onward, of a weekly column about beer in the Guardian. Though highly supportive of CAMRA, at least at first, he also made a point of acknowledging his love of good lager, as in this passage from his 1976 book Beer & Skittles in which he recounts one of his formative experiences:
Some time around 1965 I went for a holiday which took me by train through Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria… To me [Prague] seemed delightful… The food was stodgy, low in taste and protein, but my God the beer was good. I had only intended to stay in Prague for two days: I knew no one there, I hadn’t much money and there was little to do. I stayed nearly a week, going from place to place drinking this wonderful beer and feeling more and more like the good soldier Svejk.