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.
First, though, some quick tasting notes: From a 24-hour-vented, chilled mini-cask (as per instructions) it dribbled out perfectly clear, and brassy gold, with a loose but lasting white head — very British. (There was no towering mousse of shaving cream foam as found with typical Belgian saisons.)
Citrusy hops dominate the aroma, but it’s the herbs which stomp all over the taste, with lemon thyme, we think, the most dominant, again suggesting an unwelcome savouriness. There was a gingery note, too, and something — the yeast, perhaps? — also provided a reminder of rye bread with caraway seeds.
It’s a complex, interesting beer that, despite our misgivings over the herbal seasoning, we found extremely moreish, and, at 4.8% ABV, it’s fairly easygoing, too.
Now for some pondering: In what sense is this a saison? It uses saison yeast (see Richard’s comment here), albeit blended with Adnams’s house strain, and is a similar colour to Saison Dupont, but that seems to be about it. There is a clue to be found in the product release notes, however: it is ‘a homage to Saison du Buff (a three way collaboration beer brewed by Dogfish Head, Stone and Victory breweries)’. So, it’s Belgian saison via the USA, with English yeast and (in this case) the gentle carbonation of cask dispense.
Ignoring all of the blurb and just thinking about the beer itself, in the glass and in the gob, that herbal, gingery, bready character reminded us of something closer to home: the Cornish swanky beer we brewed for an article we wrote (due to appear, we hope, in Beer Advocate magazine) back in March. That was made with raisins, ginger, sugar and baker’s yeast, but look at any 19th century manual of household management and you’ll find this sort of recipe for ‘small beer’:
Given the scant resemblance to Belgian saison of the UK efforts we’ve tasted so far, perhaps it’s time to start calling more of these ‘herby’, ‘country’ or (sorry, Lars) ‘farmhouse’ beers? When we thought aloud on Twitter along these lines, we got this response:
@BoakandBailey Perhaps because people understand Saison but 'country beer' could mean anything?
— Peng Hui LEE (@PeregrinPenguin) April 19, 2015
Yes, saison has a certain level of recognition among consumers, but, given our ongoing and increasing confusion about what to expect from a British beer with that on the label (based on evidence so far, it will taste of lemon and/or thyme), is it actually very helpful?
A final thought: In one of the final chapters of Brew Britannia, we explored, briefly, the tension between traditional/family/regional breweries and the post-BrewDog/Thornbridge ‘craft’ upstarts, and quoted Adnams’s head brewer Fergus Fitzgerald:
[If] we are jumping on the bandwagon then it’s the same wagon that brewers like Adnams helped build and sent across the Atlantic, fair enough it’s been ‘pimped’ now and has more horse power, some shiny new banners and has been fitted with a ‘banging’ sound system so you can hear it coming but it’s still the same wagon.
Though we’re normally sceptical of collaboration brews (brewers mucking about) this collaboration feels almost like an act of perestroika, and far more effective than a faux-craft sub-brand in demonstrating the open-mindedness of both parties.