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Saison Season Pt 3: Roobarb

It’s surely a sign o’ the times that we were able to find two British takes on saison brewed with rhubarb for this post.

It’s one of our favourite vegetables (it had honestly never occurred to us that it might be anything other than a fruit until this moment) thanks to fond childhood memories of tooth-strippingly tart crumbles, and of acidic pink and yellow ‘rhubarb and custard’ boiled sweets:

'Rhubarb custard cremes' by Dr_Kelly, from Flickr under Creative Commons.
‘Rhubarb custard cremes’ by Dr_Kelly, from Flickr under Creative Commons.

But what on earth does it have to do with saison? And what, if anything, does it bring to the party?

Ilkley Siberia.Ilkley Siberia (5.9% ABV, 500ml @ £2.44 from Ales by Mail) was conceived by beer writer Melissa Cole and uses the forced rhubarb for which Yorkshire is famous, along with grains of paradise and vanilla pods. We’ve had it several times before and always enjoyed it, but, this time, it was a breath of fresh air: it actually tasted like something that might have been brewed in Belgium, without being a slavish copy of any particular Belgian originator.

The most obvious contributor to its character is the yeast — despite what Joe Stange says here, we reckon that using an off-the-peg Belgian strain will get you, say, 80 per cent of the way there. This is a serious attempt to create a saison with a twist, rather than a parasitic twist in search of a vulnerable beer style off which to leech.

We can’t say that the rhubarb was particularly evident in the flavour — this is not a bright pink fruit beer —  but there was a mysterious, ghostly, quirky complexity to which we suspect it subtly contributes.

It’s not perfect — we’d have preferred more vigorous carbonation, and it seemed to have gained a slightly stale after-taste through the packaging process — but, on the whole, this is a delicious beer we’d be happy to recommend. It’s a contender for our final list.

* * *

We were sent a sample of Mad Hatter Rhubarb & Custard (7%, 330ml, usually £2.99) by the Beer Hawk. It’s got a slickly-designed, contemporary-looking label in bright pink, which promises:

[A] classic saison… inoculated with Brettanomyces, and made with forced rhubarb direct from Yorkshire’s rhubarb triangle and fresh vanilla pods.

Whereas Ilkley’s was filtered bright, this Liverpudlian beer poured not merely hazy but downright cloudy, and the colour of seaside fudge. A funky, old cellar aroma wafted from the glass. The first taste gave our palates a jolt: subtle it is not. The Brettanomyces was loud and proud, giving a dusty, serious, drying quality; and beyond that lay a distinct pickled-lemon sourness. We reckon that if you blended Orval with Siren’s Limoncello IPA, you might end up with something similar.

Again, it doesn’t taste of rhubarb, and, in fact, has more in common with the boiled sweet. (Which we intend as a compliment.) If it resembles a Belgian saison, it is the unpredictable, off-the-wall, dirty ones produced by Fantôme, rather than the patrician precision of Dupont.

We have to admit a struggle in our hearts: our instinct was to declare it rough and homebrew-like, but we found it simply impossible to dislike. Sometimes, on the Great British Menu, a chef will prepare an untidy, extravagant dessert that Oliver Peyton turns his nose up at, but the otherwise prim-and-proper Prue Leith’s face will light up: ‘Oh, well, this is fun, isn’t it!?’ That’s how this beer made us feel. It’s a contender, though we’ll have to caveat any recommendation pretty heavily — it’s not one for beginners.

One reply on “Saison Season Pt 3: Roobarb”

Have you had the Firebrand Black Saison? We came across it on cask in Cambridge the other night and it was pretty enjoyable – fairly classic saison flavour plus some roasty maltiness. Probably not that reliably available, but possibly worth including as a local(ish) wildcard?

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