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Saison Season Pt1: Lemonheads

This first batch of UK-brewed saisons in our new series of tastings are connected loosely by their inclusion of lemon, or lemongrass, and all three just happen to be from London.

They were purchased from Ales by Mail:

  • Partizan Lemongrass (pictured above) — 3.8%, 330ml, £2.09.
  • Partizan Lemon & Thyme — 3.9%, 330ml, £2.09.
  • Brew by Numbers 01/08 Lemon & Wai-Iti — 6.2%, 330ml, £2.29.

With yesterday’s post in mind, we were looking for the herbs and fruit added to these beers to be noticeable without overriding, and to be integrated into the beer rather than seeming like a shot of fruit squash.

Partizan Lemongrass poured beautifully bright with a persistent but gentle fizz, and was ultra-pale with a pure white head. From the off, opinion was divided: one of us ‘Ugh!’-ed as the other ‘Ooh!’-ed. ‘It smells like washing up liquid,’ said Boak, while Bailey was reminded of fruit tea. The dispute continued as we tasted as, for Boak, the lemongrass was a touch too dominant and brought with it a persistent suggestion of savouriness, while Bailey had no such problem: ‘I could sink this by the pint and, if were in a pub, I might stick on it for the night.’  What we did agree on was that it didn’t much resemble any Belgian saison we’d ever tasted. In fact, despite the absence of wheat in the ingredients list and its crystal clarity, it tasted much more like a witbier (spicy, citrusy, a touch of pot-pourri). The disagreement means we can’t add it to our list of wholehearted recommendations.

We also disagreed about Partizan Lemon & Thyme, although less vehemently. We are both generally of the view that herbs commonly used to season chicken and lamb don’t really work in beer and this did not change our minds. Maybe slightly darker than its stable-mate, but not by much, it had a subdued aroma, with just a passing whiff of zest. The flavour was similarly restrained and brought to mind the kind of slightly astringent golden ales we used to find in ‘real ale’ pubs c.2008. But the thyme was there, giving an unwelcome sickly, savoury note. Boak fundamentally disliked it, while Bailey found it drinkable, though not so much that he’s desperate for another any time soon.

Finally, saving the biggest for last, there was Brew by Numbers Lemon & Wai-Iti — an immediate hit with both of us. (Phew — partnership saved!) It poured clear-to-hazy and, again, very pale. As far as we know, this is our first encounter with Wai-Iti hops and we’re not sure whether it was them, the lemon or a combination of both which provided an aroma reminiscent of Thai pomelo salad. At any rate, it was enticing and faintly enigmatic. Something about the weight of the body and the flavour combined to give a first impression on tasting of milkiness — or was it coconut milk, specifically? Or an Indian lassi? That smooth, almost creamy quality was balanced by an insistent bitterness which lingered and built in the mouth, layer on layer. As with beer #1, we’re not entirely sure saison is the right designation as this too seems to have more in common with witbier. It certainly offers something different to Saison Dupont, and is quirky without being ‘silly’. It’s a definite contender.

We came away from this session with a couple of questions:

  1. Why is wit less cool than saison? Is it Hoegaarden’s fault? Or is it because wit was hip 25 years ago while saison is still, in the broader scheme of things, obscure?
  2. Is citrus, in fact, the defining characteristic of a wit and, if so, does it have any place in a saison?

Next up: because, astonishingly, there is more than one on the market, two saisons with rhubarb, and one with gooseberries.

28 replies on “Saison Season Pt1: Lemonheads”

I know this is stating the obvious but doesn’t witbier need to have wheat in it? So they can’t call them wits…

Ian — you’re right, of course, but not being a wit doesn’t necessarily mean that saison is the right alternative descriptor. (And, for the record, the BBNO label does say it contains ‘raw malted wheat’.)

Fair enough I thought you were suggesting they be labelled as witbiers, which did seem a bit odd…

A wit traditionally contains a high proportion of unmalted wheat. I am loathe to call in the style police , but saisons made in the uk tend to be defined by the application of commercial saison yeast to an occasionally authentic malt and hop grist.

Waiti is an interesting hop, high citrusy flavour, low alpha, meaning you can use a lot late in the boil without bittering.

I have had kernel pale ales with them which were great, and BBNo make a tripel with them, which will also upset the style police, but it’s a great beer.

“…saisons made in the uk tend to be defined by the application of commercial saison yeast to an occasionally authentic malt and hop grist.”

That’s our working hypothesis, though we’re going to drink a few more before coming to a firm conclusion.

My theory is that many British brewers use exactly the same Wyeast strain to make their saison (3711 – French Saison) as it is a good attenuator, easy to handle, and quick working unlike some other strains. (Though I know of at least one exceptions ).

On the wit/saison thing, I know Nøgne Ø actually use the same yeast for both their Wit and Saison (which is WLP400).

We made a pretty successful tripel (if we do say so ourselves) using dried witbier yeast, so, although yeast is important, and can be a shortcut to brewing ‘to style’, it’s not the be-all-and-end-all.

Indeed – there’s a lot more to brewing a “style” than getting the right yeast (though in some cases it helps enormously).

There is a lot of crossover in the Belgian “styles” (of which I am sure the Belgian brewers actually don’t care too much about) – many don’t easily fit in one place, and consequently trying to pigeonhole them by yeast strain, grist composition, etc is not entirely helpful in many cases.

If you take the focus off brewing-to-style, could you see “speciality yeast” as a more subtle version of the herb / spice / fruit additions from your previous post?

“It’s a definite contender”. Sounds like it is only a contender as the most drinkable beer of the evening.

Doesn’t seem to have anything to do with being a saison. Which, on the evidence presented, it clearly isn’t.

Maybe the utility of “saison” is that it needs no defining characteristic to qualify. Sort of a Franken-style. I am sure there are black saisons laced with burning grapefruit hops in the US.

Not a saison, but it would be interesting maybe to compare Williams Bros Grozet against your gooseberry saison?

On a business trip to Amsterdam, I remember a contact musing aloud over which bar to take us to & worrying that he’d have to find one that had a good alternative to witbier, which was obviously his own regular choice. When I said I liked wits he was genuinely surprised & said I was the first Brit he’d met who did. This was 1997, I think – certainly no earlier than 1996 (I got that job at the end of 1995). It must have been quite soon after that that Hoegaarden’s distribution switched from selective to blanket.

As for the unhipness of witbier, basically I think it was bad timing – by the time ‘craft’ hit we’d all had so much Hoegaarden that we’d got sick of the stuff, but hadn’t had long enough to forget it.

Not commenting on saisons, as
a) if ‘saison’ means ‘seasonal farmhouse beer’ it covers a much bigger range than your sample, but
b) if it means ‘Saison Dupont-alike’ then either it’s a Saison Dupont-alike or it isn’t. But I’m a terrible pedant.

We miss the days when it was ubiquitous in pubs. Still fans, and not sure we’ve actually found a better Witbier.

Quite fond of it myself, although I’m not sure when I last had it. You take the point, though – the Dawn of Craft was quite soon after the Saturation Marketing of Hoegaarden. For wits to be a thing would have been a bit like having a fashion for ‘craft’ Mexican lager with a lime wedge in the neck.

On the other hand, stout was a craft ‘thing’ pretty much from day one – which suggests that Guinness (although ubiquitous pretty much everywhere) had dodged the bullet of unhipness again; how do they keep doing it?

Can B&B please define saison for the purposes of this discussion? How should a beer taste for it to be considered saison-like?

Bloody hell — it’s like being on the Andrew Marr show. We’re not sure, yet which is part of the reason for this exercise. In the post, we say (carefully….) not like any saison from Belgium we’ve had. (That doesn’t just mean Dupont.) The problem is, not many if them are anything like each other. They don’t tend to have citrus in, though, or make a feature of new world hop aroma, as far as we’ve noticed.

I’m not complaining, I’m just trying to understand what other people expect a saison to taste like.

I think the problem we have in this country is that straightforward saisons and reinterpretations of saisons (eg dry-hopped imperial saisons etc) have all arrived at the same time, so no-one knows which is the original and which is the spin-off.

Actually I think you should try to include the Revisionist Saison if you can, because if nothing else, it is at least just a normal, straightforward saison. Can you not just order it online?

We tried but the online deliveries come from your local store; disappears when we enter our postcode.

most saisons I have tried taste like a wheat beer with a mild lambic infection. I think they can often be quite naturally lemony, without having to augment that with artificial flavourings.

if nothing else, it is at least just a normal, straightforward saison

Phew – I was starting to wonder if it was just me. Especially when I saw the CAMRGB take on it:

Belgian Saison (5%) contains absolutely nothing resembling a Saison.
Nothing at all.
In fact it tastes rather like a thinned down bottle of Pedigree.
There’s a flaccid caramel sweetness, some pastry crumbs and tired and bored hops that whimper to you about how they could have been contenders.
Instead they’re the feint memory of mown lawns and very little else.
And as with the Hefeweizen there’s a terrible chemical aftertaste that made me pour this beer down the sink.
Very bad indeed.

I don’t know whether to be impatient with the reviewer for being so dismissive or jealous that he’s apparently been able to ruin his palate with so much good stuff. (I mean, Freixenet Cava probably tastes exactly like Lambrini if you’re drinking Moët every day.)

That’s a hilarious review 🙂 more caught up in its own verbiage than the beer perhaps.

The saison was one of the better-for-style of the Revisionist set (based on a single bottle back when they 1st came out).

My notes were: “OK – a bit muted on the typical saison flavours, quite sweet even at fridge temp. Thyme-y zesty bubblegummy notes.”

Which lends some credence to the saison => lemon right there.

It was very sweet. Saison to me usually tends to be on the dry side… having home-brewed with a saison yeast it is a hungry bugger. Marstons probably deemed this not mass-market-acceptable enough and filtered/pasteurised the poor thing before it fermented out … or sweetened it? (Do dead-bottle brewers do that? I’ve often wondered actually, but never investigated/asked.)

Another thought: did Marston’s actually venture to use a saison yeast in their brewery? Or did they replicate the flavour profile with additives? [Not meaning to suggest they did… just a possibility that tickles my interest.]

To be fair to B&B, I think for the purpose of this discussion ‘saison’ is defined as ‘has the word Saison on the label’, which is as good a way to define a set of beers for comparison tasting as any.

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