Saison Season Pt 2: The Herbalist

The Herbalist, a hoppy saison.

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’:

Small Beer recipe, 1827.

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:

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.

12 thoughts on “Saison Season Pt 2: The Herbalist”

  1. Those mini casks can’t take a lot of pressure, so shaving foam Belgians will never happen from them. Perversely that makes them more historically authentic; I don’t think any 19th century farmhouse had pressure vessels that could take modern saison level of carbonation.

    ‘Country Beer’ I think opens the floodgates to new variations on a saison theme that is already poorly ring fenced. It also risks stomping over some of the last remaining farmhouse traditions.

    One thing that gets forgotten in the saison definition debate, is what happened to the saison as it got industrialised post ww2.

    Breweries recreated the saison, and some reimagining happened. The style would have cleaned up, and the strengths increased. There is also some anecdotes that the first brewery made saisons, resembled wit beer.

    So when contemporary breweries go crazy making saisons, it is not the first time it has happened

  2. Don’t blame the countryside for these confused weirdo brews. They remind me of those early natural food stores in the 1980s where folk first discovered rows of jars of dried herbs and thin self-published paperback guides to their uses. Hardwood floors creaking. Staff in home macramay vests and ferns hanging from macramay cords. Bins of various rolled oats.

  3. What to call these British beers? Good question. If they really don’t taste much like Belgian saison it seems just misleading to call them that. I don’t understand why they should be called “country” or “farmhouse”. What’s country or farmhouse about them? The saison yeast? By that logic they should be saisons, no?

    “Herbal” or “herby” seems much better, particularly for this one, which according to your tasting notes seems to be pretty much defined by the herbs.

    I agree with Richard that most farmhouse ale appears to be low on carbonation even today, although there seem to have been exceptions. On Youtube somewhere there’s supposed to be a video from a Lithuanian wedding where the toastmaster screws up the application of the špunka (a kind of cask tap) and winds up spraying himself and the guests with beer. Apparently these casks generally had a good bit of carbonation.

  4. I don’t usually find myself drinking a beer of the moment but I had this a week back in Edinburgh. It was just the thing for sitting in the window of The Potting Shed with on a sunny day after a stroll through the Meadows: even better in a beer garden (a proper one, with actual grass and plants) I would imagine.

    Can’t remember the exact description on the board but it didn’t mention “saison”: Botanical ale with lemon, bay and thyme, I think. Could such beers be called “Botanicals” as a class?

  5. Richard — I think vague is what we’re after, rather than trying to pin down a new style with any precision, and/or encourage brewers to rein in their experiments. It won’t work for brewing competitions but, for consumers, something that indicates ‘slightly funky refreshing beer with weird stuff in it’ might be quite handy. (At the moment, that’s what saison seems to be code for in the UK.)

    Lars — maybe we mean ‘country-style’ — the sugar-ginger-nettle-herb beers we keep seeing in old recipe books aren’t exclusively rural in origin, but that (further research required…) seems to be more their turf; while porter and IPA are essentially urban. Herb beer might work, though, and is certainly pretty precise!

    Dvorak (and Alan) — botanical beer might also work, plus it sounds appetising and intriguing so would work from a marketing perspective. (Thornbridge did a botanical beer, didn’t they, which sort of tasted like gin?)

  6. @Bailey: Those probably were made more often in the countryside, as you’d have easier access to the ingredients there, and more space. Personally, I like “herb beer”. Ratebeer has the “herb/spice/vegetable” category for anything non-standard with weird ingredients and in practice that works pretty well.

  7. After much anticipation I got to try this at the weekend. Sadly, I didn’t really enjoy it. It wasn’t to my taste…as a saison. I’m going to go ahead and say it wasn’t saison-ish enough for me. I also didn’t care for the character of the yeast. There was something too sweet about it (not necessarily underattenuation – it might have been the lemony flavour adding to my perception of sweetness – I’d really to have try it again to pin down exactly what I didn’t care for in the beer).

    However, one thing a friend pointed out is that it has to be one of the few ‘saisons’ we have ever had on cask that was drinkable.

    But in hindsight, I think it’s more fair to put this into the spice/herb/vegetable category (not that brewers need to categorise their beers). Or even, as it’s a bit hoppy, it could be called a white IPA. Last year we brewed a hoppy lemon verbena and sage beer with a witbier yeast which was not a million miles away from this in ‘style’.

    Ultimately, saison is arguably the broadest style of beer, traditionally brewed with whatever was to hand. So I’m not sure it needs breaking down any further into sub-styles, but if it does then I’d say that ‘farmhouse’ ale was the obvious choice as it indicates the use of a Belgian-style yeast, which you’d expect to provide some appreciable level of fruity/spicy esters.

  8. My local spoons had this on at weekend and it divided the group. I really quite enjoyed it but my other two mates rated it as “just about drinkable”.
    As others have said I didn’t find it much like a Saison, initial citrus and hoppy notes much like a pale ale followed by huge whack of herbs with a lemony almost mineral taste after. Saying that I thought it was pretty sessionable and at £2.40 a pint was more than happy to have a second.
    I also like the “herb beer” category as it actually provides a better definition of the beers dominate taste is as opposed to labelling it a saision due to using saison yeast or a mix of in the case of this beer.

  9. If I was to see this in the pub the thing that would strike me would be ‘Herbs’ rather than ‘Saison’.

    (I would also be suspicious of cask saison in general. In the same way that I am of cask lager.)

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