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.
Though the ingredients list doesn’t mention coriander or orange peel, the aroma reminded us of Hoegaarden Witbier so, yes, cleverly done. The supposed Thai spicing (ginger, lemongrass, lime leaves) is thankfully restrained — a teasing hint rather than fizzy pop flavouring. It edges towards sweet and has a syrupy, mouth-coating quality which brings to mind Belgian blonde ales or even Trappist tripels more than any saison we’ve tasted. In short, it’s a decent, clean beer with a good bit of character, and certainly a remarkable effort for a small pub brewery. Overall, we concluded that it isn’t a contender for our short list, but it’s not far off: a little less sweetness and higher carbonation would probably have tipped it over the edge.
By The Horns are one of many breweries in the recent London boom that we haven’t had chance to get to know — just a half here, a half there, the odd bottle, and none of them particularly to our taste.
This beer poured orange-brown with gentle carbonation and so looked for all the world like a best bitter. Its complicated style descriptor — ‘saison-brett aged in Burgandy [sic] Oak’ — carried through into the aroma (Orval plus over-ripe plums plus a dash of chip-shop vinegar). ‘Is this one of those beers where it went wrong so the brewery barrel-aged it?’ we wondered. A complex multi-faceted sourness dominated the taste, too, bringing to mind pickled lemons. It was bracing and almost refreshing but, for us, just a bit too intense and odd, really. As it warmed up, it became more wine-like, rounder in the mouth and more blackcurranty. (Or was that just suggested by the label?)
Again, this is not a contender — it is ultimately too rough around the edges and it is hard to see much evidence of the saison character after all the Frankenstein-ing it’s been through — but we’ll certainly drink the other bottle, perhaps with some food with enough poke to tame the beer’s spikiness. Or maybe it would work as a sort of stock ale for blending with blander beers?
Celt are a Welsh brewery whose beers we don’t recall ever having come across before even though, a year or two back, they were being coo-ed over by writers and bloggers and collaborating furiously with other brewers.
Hallstatt Deity poured amber-brown with (at last!) a really vigorous head of foam, and a slight haze. It is supposedly a saison with pomegranate but actually tasted, to us, like a standard pale ale with a great big shot of grapefruit juice in it. The sourness was clean and sharp, but also a little tooth-stripping. Some leafy-green hop character made itself known in the dying dregs. We liked the beer’s tonic-like dryness and found it really quite striking and interesting. Which is, of course, code for the fact that we didn’t really like it, but can see that others with a taste for the exotic and intense might.
So, it’s strike three: this is not a contender either, mostly because we can’t quite see the route you would take to get from something like Saison Dupont to this oddity.
It seems we’re groping our way closer to understanding what saison means in the UK: in most cases, it is apparently a catch-all for ‘weird shit’ — a way of suggesting the exotic, like a sign outside a 1970s Soho cinema promising ‘foreign films’. That our favourite of these three was Hop Kettle’s, the most straightforward attempt to brew in the Belgian style, is probably telling, too — we are probably after Dupont-alikes, it seems.