News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 July 2018: Marsan, Saison, Vaseline

Here’s all the writing about beer and pubs that grabbed us in the past week, from equality initiatives to the specifics of European beer styles.

We’ll start with a flurry of accidentally interconnected items about pubs and how welcoming they might or might not seem to different people and groups.

British political Twitter spent a good chunk of the week talking about pubs after actor Eddie Marsan said that he didn’t like them, associating them, based on his own childhood experiences in the East End of London, with domestic violence and macho posturing.

Meanwhile, two related schemes have launched with the intention of making pubs more inviting to a wider range of people. First, with Melissa Cole at the helm, there’s the Everyone Welcome Initiative:

The aim of this initiative is to provide beer venues and events with a strong statement that everyone who walks through the door is welcome regardless, of their gender, sexual orientation, race, health, religion, age or disability… Whilst these forms of discrimination are covered under the Equality Act 2010, none of us can say that they don’t happen and what this initiative is designed to do is give people the opportunity to nail their colours to the mast about the kind of venue or event they are running – to shout proudly that hate isn’t to be tolerated and ignorance is not an excuse.

The Equality in Pubs accreditation scheme, led by Jessica Mason, launched a few days later:

Publicans who would like to let visitors know that their pub has a zero tolerance policy on abuse in any of its forms can now sign up to TEPA and, from 2019, gain a window sticker and a plot on a map on TEPA website to let people know that their pub doesn’t support homophobia, sexism or racism in any of its guises from neither its staff or it’s drinkers. Joining TEPA means the publican has a civic duty to act should they recognise abuse in their venue.

We’ll finish with a link to something we wrote last year which appeared this week at All About Beer after a long delay, thus seeming accidentally topical:

[If you] find yourself in a pub where you oughtn’t be, it will usually be made clear to you, as long as you are reasonably fluent in the language of passive-aggression. It might, for example, take a long time to get served, if the person behind the bar acknowledges you at all. You might get asked point blank if you are a police officer, which happens to us not infrequently—something about our flat feet, perhaps. Or the regulars might start a loud, pointed conversation about strangers, or foreigners, or people wearing whatever colour hat you happen to be wearing. We once walked into a pub only to be greeted by five men in soccer shirts, one of whom simply pointed and said: “No, no—turn round and walk out. Now.” We did so.

Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 July 2018: Marsan, Saison, Vaseline”

St Austell Cornish Saison for M&S

Marks & Spencer, the slightly upmarket English supermarket-stroke-department-store, has been doing interesting things with its beer range for a few years now but the idea of a Cornish-brewed Saison really grabbed our interest.

It’s produced for them by St Austell, a brewery very much on our trusted list, and has evolved from an original small-batch brew designed in collaboration with beer writer Melissa Cole. It has 5.9% ABV, comes in a cute purple 330ml can, and costs £2. (Or less as part of the current four-for-the-price-of-three promotion.)

But is it a bargain, or do we have a Hatherwood situation on our hands?

Saison in the glass with can nearby.

It is perfectly, almost astonishingly clear in the glass, with a decent head of foam that stops short of Belgian voluminousness. (Perhaps it’s harder to achieve the necessary pressure in cans.)

On tasting, the model is clear: it is an homage to Saison Dupont, which is fine by us. There’s the same familiar spiciness from the yeast and the same golden colour. It isn’t a slavish clone, though: this beer is cleaner, more bitter, and seemed to have a lot more orange peel and coriander character.

In fact by the end of the glass we were wondering if it might not almost be described as a kind of Kristall Wit — that is, an application of the filtering technique used to clarify certain wheat beers in Germany to the spicier, more citrusy Belgian equivalent.

It’s a fascinating, very enjoyable beer that could easily pass for something genuinely Belgian. (We know St Austell’s head brewer, Roger Ryman, is a Belgian beer fanatic.) So, yes, that means it’s good value, and we’ll certainly be buying some more next time we pass a branch of M&S.

In general, we do like how M&S packages its own-brand beers these days. Quite apart from the cool and colourful graphic design they’re (a) clearly identified as own-brand but (b) with clear information about who brews them. That means we can make an informed choice about which to take a chance on (Oakham, Adnams, St Austell) and which to avoid (sorry, Hogs Back).

Patreon’s Choice #1: Bag of Marbles

This is the first in a series of posts about beers chosen for us by our Patreon subscribers and features beers from Manchester brewery Marble.

It was Steve Lamond (@BeersIveKnown) who suggested that we try Lost Your Marbles and we added a couple of other interesting looking beers from Marble to fill out the box. We bought them (and all the beers for this particular series of posts) from Beer Ritz because, though the website is still mildly frustrating, we like the range on offer and find the service fuss-free.

The head of a glass of beer with glinting light.

First, as we tackled these in ascending order of strength, was Saison du Pint at 3.9% ABV and £2.80 per 330ml can.

What a clever beer, both in terms of execution and concept. It’s the brewery’s standard pale bitter, Pint, but fermented with the same strain of yeast used for the Belgian classic Saison du Pont. A sort of unofficial collaboration, we suppose.

It comes with a huge cotton-wool head, a beautifully clear golden body, and a whiff of some sort of sticky banana dessert. It’s tempting to judge it against Saison du Pont to which, unsurprisingly, it does indeed bear a family resemblance, but by that standard it seems a little thin and lacking in luxury. As a quirky session ale, however — remember, 3.9! — it is absolutely a winner, with a peppery mustard-leaf prickle contributed by the yeast complimenting the base beer in wonderful ways. Sinkable but strange; made to quench thirsts but cutting a dandyish dash on the way.

A few years ago we gave some talks on the basics of how beer is made and used German wheat beer to illustrate the impact of yeast. This would be even better, tasted side by side with original Pint.

The only serious downside, really, is that we want to drink it by the pint, and several pints in a row, rather than from a diddy can at home.

A dark old ale in the glass with bottle.

Lost Your Marbles is the beer Steve really wanted us to try: “My beer of the year to date — love what [James Kemp, head brewer at Marble] is doing with his old ales series.” It’s a 9% ABV ‘Cognac Oak Aged Blend’ and cost £5.38 for 330ml. It comes in a plain bottle with an attractively designed card dangling round its neck on a black ribbon.

(How do we know the right card stayed with the right beer throughout its journey? We don’t, but let’s not fret about that.)

This dense, dark beer was fascinating too, in a less subtle way. Like a lot of old ales and imperial stouts at around this strength it seems to contain a bit of everything: demerara, the burn of spirits, bonfire toffee, Cola sweets, dessert wine, coffee essence… You get the idea.

The suggestion of sugar that had ‘caught’ in the base of a too-hot pan, and a hot whisky note, meant that it wasn’t quite to our taste, but it is clearly a well-made, undoubtedly interesting, deeply indulgent beer that will knock the socks of most people who drink it. Heck, we’d probably buy it again, because it came close enough to wowing us that the chances are on a different day, in a different mood, it would do just that.

The head of a glass of dark old ale.

In a similar vein, at the same price, comes Castle of Udolpho, a blend of young and Pinot Noir barrel-aged old ale at 10.4% ABV.

This beer was so dark that if it was badged as stout we wouldn’t argue. It came with an off-white head and distinct aroma of something like sour cherry, or even raspberry vinegar. There were flavours of condensed milk, chocolate and even caramel were balanced with a liqueur-like heat and bite, and then chased around the mouth by a Harvey’s-like funkiness that took a long time to die away. The body seemed oddly thin after Lost Your Marbles — perhaps a consequence of something (the source of that funk?) having chewed through some of the residual sugar?

Again, though there’s no doubting its complexity or the skill with which it was put together, something about it didn’t quite click for us. We liked it, but didn’t love it. Perhaps it struck us as a little harsh or overblown, but then the same applies to Harvey’s Extra Double Stout and we can’t get enough of that. Perhaps it’s just that when you turn the volume up like this the background noise is amplified along with the good stuff. Our guess is that a bottle of this left alone for five years would come together rather better. If you like big, boozy, complex beers there’s a very good chance you’ll swoon over this one.

* * *

Overall, we’re left with our high opinion of Marble. It’s a brewery that takes risks and does interesting things, whose beers are rarely less than enjoyable and often brilliant.

Magical Mystery Pour #27: Elephant School Sombrero

This passion fruit and chia saison is the third in a series of Essex beers chosen for us by Justin Mason (@1970sBOY) of Get Beer, Drink Beer.

Elephant School is a would-be-hip experimental sub-brand of Brentwood Brewing. This beer cost us £3 for 330ml from Essex Food. Justin says:

Brentwood Brewery, even though it’s across the other side of town to me, is my closest brewery in Essex and their Elephant School brand (named after an actual elephant school in Brentwood where people were trained to ride elephants by the East India Company prior to going to the sub-continent ) is their more creative arm. Sombrero is brewed with chia, a member of the mint family, and passion fruit, the latter ingredient almost taking the lid off the fermenter it was so volatile. This is still my favourite of their beers even though I have brewed my own cranberry Porter with them recently, Porter in a Storm.

What were our prejudices going into this? We’ve often been rather impressed by Brentwood’s cask ales — a 2.8% bitter of theirs is perhaps the best low-alcohol beer we’ve ever had — but can’t recall having tried their bottled products, and bottled beers from small breweries can be a risky business. Then there’s the style as described: saison is a difficult, delicate style and we sometimes suspect that chucking fruit in it is a distraction technique. And, finally, there’s a mild irritation at the idea that Brentwood, already a tiny independent brewery, needs a ‘craft’ spin-off — where does this kind of weirdness end?

Sombrero Saison in the glass. (Golden beer.)
Popping the orange cap we were answered with an assertive hiss and managed to pour (quite easily) a pure golden glass of beer topped with a glossy meringue-like head.

At first, we were worried by the aroma, which caused some nose wrinkling. There was a whiff of the old first aid kit about it, something chemical; or perhaps a peatiness, but somehow without the smoke. For a while, that was overriding, but it either died away or we got used to it.

Zeroing on the base beer we found something on thin side, dry, and spicy — a decent enough saison, but lacking the luxury of the standard-bearer for the style, Dupont. Perhaps that’s because it’s only 4.5% ABV — either historically appropriate or a kind of session saison, depending on the angle you’re coming from.

The passion fruit was dialling its performance in, offering a whisper of fruit flavour, but certainly not earning it’s star billing. It was about right for us, really — interesting and intriguing rather than like something that ought to be in a carton with a straw through the lid. We did wonder if the fruit was responsible for a mild acidity which we could have done without.

We detected nothing remotely minty, which is better, we suppose, than getting a gobful of it and not liking it.

It could do to be cleaner and, at the same time, to be a bit more interesting overall, given the expectations set up by the label and description. But we didn’t dislike it, even if we couldn’t go out of our way to drink it again.

QUICK REVIEW: Small Saison With German Hops and a British Accent

Among our most recent grab-bag of interesting looking beers was Brew By Numbers Huell Melon Table Saison 17|07 which we bought at £2.79 for 330ml from Beer Hawk.

We find Brew By Numbers slightly frustrating: they’re responsible for some great stuff, and some not so great, which makes buying their beer a gamble. We have tended to enjoy their pale Belgian-inspired beers most, though, and found the idea of a 3.5% ABV saison made with an unusual, relatively new German hop variety irresistible.

It looked vaguely Champagne-like in the glass, with touches of pink, herbal green and gold depending on how the light caught it.

We didn’t detect the melon aromas for which the hop variety is known, and after which it is named, or too much aroma at all beyond a snatch of wild, catty hedgerow flowers.

The body was thin, not far from watery, the emphasis being on ‘table’ rather than ‘saison’. (Historically saisons were light, refreshing beers but these days, with Dupont as the role model, tend to be more like 6.5% and richer tasting.) Did it also taste a bit like… Aspirin? There was some mineral bite anyway, ever so slightly jarring. But once we’d adjusted to the reality of the situation we began to revel in the spicy, bitter, tonic spritziness of it all. It’s a blunt beer, one-dimensional really, but that’s not necessarily bad news — you might also call it focused, or straightforward, or even minimalistic.

The only real problem is — and bear in mind that we’re not pints-only dogmatists — that it really wants to be drunk in greater volume, rather than sipped. Even, perhaps, sloshed out of a five-pint jug, in a farmyard or field.

On further reflection, we decided that if we’d been given it blind and asked to categorise it by style we reckon we’d have filed it under pale’n’hoppy English ale rather than saison, which is odd when you think of its resolutely European DNA.

The final verdict? We liked it and would drink it again, especially on a thirsty summer day.

Discomfort Beer — Saison, Tripel, Brett and Kriek

‘Access01’ by David Bleasdale from Flickr under Creative Commons.

These are our instructions from Alec Latham, the host of this edition of the monthly beer blogging jamboree:

‘For Session 119 I’d like you to write about which/what kind of beers took you out of your comfort zones. Beers you weren’t sure whether you didn’t like, or whether you just needed to adjust to. Also, this can’t include beers that were compromised, defective, flat, off etc because this is about deliberate styles. It would be interesting to see if these experiences are similar in different countries.’

The example Alec gives in his own post is Thornbridge Wild Raven, the first black IPA he’d ever tried, and in the broadest terms, there’s the answer: any new style will probably wrong-foot you the first time you come across it. You might even say the same of entire national brewing traditions.

‘Discomfort’ is an interesting word for Alec to choose because the feeling we think he’s describing is as much social anxiety as it is purely about the beer: other people like this, but I don’t — am I being stupid? Am I missing something?

Partizan Lemongrass Saison.

We grappled with saison for years, for example. Michael Jackson wrote about it so eloquently and enthusiastically, as did Tim Webb and Joris Pattyn, and many others, but we didn’t get it. How could we match up those tantalising tasting notes with the fizzy Lucozade beers we kept finding in Belgian bars in London? Maybe the experts were just wrong — a worrying thought. We could have simply given up but we kept trying until something clicked. Now we not only understand saison (with, say, 65 per cent confidence) but also know which particular ones we do and don’t like.

Over the years we’ve been similarly disgusted or nonplussed by Belgian tripels, specifically Chimay White which just tasted to us like pure alcohol back in 2003; and also by Brettanomyces-influenced beers — Harvey’s Imperial, now one of our favourites, appalled us the first few times we tried it, and Orval left us cold until quite recently. (We are now fanpersons.)

In each case, the discomfort was worth it, like practising a musical instrument until your fingers hurt, because it opened up options and left us with a wider field of vision.

The flipside to Alec’s proposition, of course, is that some beers are immediately appealing but perhaps become tarnished with experience. The first time we were ever dragged to an obscure pub by an excited friend it was to drink Timmerman’s fruit beers from Belgium which we now find almost too sweet to bear. Comfort turns to discomfort, delight to queasiness.

The sense of taste is an unstable, agile, mischievous thing that you can never quite tame.

News, Nuggets & Longreads 20 August 2016: Ribbeltje, Gasholders and Serebryanka

Here’s all the writing about beer, pubs, beer glasses and gasholders that’s caught our eye in the last week.

Barm (@robsterowski) breaks the oddly sad news that the company behind Stella Artois is to cease serving its premium lager in so-called ribbeltje glasses in its native Belgium, going over instead to the fancier chalice design:

As is widely known, despite the brewer’s attempt to punt it in other countries as a ‘reassuringly expensive’ premium beer, in Belgium Stella is the bog standard café beer, with a basic, proletarian glass to match. This, of course, is precisely why the marketers hate the glass so much. It’s not chic enough for their pretensions.


Dandelion saison in the glass.
SOURCE: Ales of the Riverwards

With a cameo appearance from just such a glass, Ed Coffey at Ales of the Riverwards has been reflecting on foraged ingredients and his idea for dandelion saison is simple and, we think, rather brilliant. Continue reading “News, Nuggets & Longreads 20 August 2016: Ribbeltje, Gasholders and Serebryanka”

The Great British Saison Taste-Off

Since April, we’ve tried a ton of different British-brewed saisons and selected eight for our final taste-off. Now, at last, we have our top three.

We won’t make you wait — they are, in order of preference:

  1. BrewDog Electric India — 5.2%, available April-June — tasting notes 30/04/2015
  2. Cheddar Ales Firewitch — 4.8% — tasting notes 06/08/2015
  3. Weird Beard Saison 14 — 5.6%, an ‘occasional brew’ — tasting notes 29/07/2015

Beers which tasted great in the ‘heats’ didn’t necessarily stand up to the competition — Wild Beer Co’s Epic, Ilkley Siberia and Mad Hatter Rhubarb Custard seemed rough-edged by comparison with some of their peers and, in no particular order, came at the bottom.

Continue reading “The Great British Saison Taste-Off”

Saisons: Prelude to Finale

We’ve set aside tomorrow evening for the final saison taste-off but, just for context, have tried a couple of US and Belgian takes on the style in the last week.

Anchor Saison (USA, £3.16 for 350ml from Beer Ritz, 7.2% ABV), also labelled as ‘Spring Ale’, was a disaster: hotly alcoholic, too clove-heavy, with a general excess of bitter spices. The clove character is, it seems, from the yeast but the recipe also contains ginger, lemongrass and lemon peel. It just needs toning down, or at least pulling together so it doesn’t rattle so much.

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace (USA, £3.68, 355ml from Beer Ritz, 7.6%), on the other hand, is one of the most immediately exciting beers we’ve tasted in a while. Rather than by-the-book amber/gold it is a beautiful pilsner-pale green-yellow, like Duvel. The headlining hop contributes lemon throughout and coconut at the end, enveloped in a feathery-light body. The yeast, firmly under control, didn’t seem to contribute much in the way of spice or funk, so perhaps the ‘saison-ness’ of this beer could be questioned. Duvel is the nearest equivalent, in fact — bright and light, Champagne-like, and one we’ll be drinking again.

We can’t see that Anchor’s effort has had much influence in the UK but Brooklyn’s must surely have something to do with the ubiquity of Sorachi Ace in British-brewed saisons. We’ll bear this in mind when we revisit our contenders in the finale.

* * *

Silly Saison (Belgium, £2.47, 330ml, 5%) is a beer we drank once or twice years ago and wrote-off as, frankly, grim. We wanted to revisit it as a reminder of how broadly ‘saison’ is applied in its native land and it certainly fulfilled that function. Red-brown and perfectly clear, it has a crystalline, Coca Cola quality which carries through to the taste: our first thought was malt loaf, then acrid cold tea, and, finally, thanks to a prompt from Martyn on Twitter, raisins. (When you soak raisins in tea to make bara brith — that!) We still think it’s too sweet and were left wondering how a beer can be both bland and weirdly nasty at the same time.

Finally, back to the Sgt. Pepper of saisons: Saison Dupont (£2.83, 330ml, 6.5%). After several months of challengers and wannabes, this was almost a relief: it is just perfect. Drying, a little flowery, alternately crisp and luscious, full of interesting details without any one facet dominating. If we could fault it, we might say the bitterness was just a touch blunt, but then that might have been a hangover from the sickly Silly.

In the final taste-off we will, of course, have Dupont in mind — how could we not? — but we’ll also remember Silly: saisons can be brown, and they can be sweet, and Dupont isn’t the only role model in town.

Saisons Pt 9: We Lied, But This Really Is it

This is absolutely, positively, really the last of the UK-brewed saisons we’re planning to taste before the big final ‘taste off’ and the subject is Cheddar Ales Firewitch.

“Seriously — this is still going!?” We meant to wrap up before we took our month off but… didn’t. And then, mucking about in Somerset, we came across bottles of Firewitch, and realised we’d have to include it. That’s not least because Adrian Tierney-Jones told us we really ought to. (He has written about it here and, we believe, will be including it in his tasting session at GBBF.)

We bought three 500ml bottles of this 4.8% ABV beer @ £2.50 each from the tiny shop attached to Millwhite’s Cider Farm in Rooksbridge, Somerset, not far from where it is brewed. The first we drank the same day, without taking notes, but had a strong gut reaction: THIS IS GOOD STUFF.

Ray Stantz from Ghostbusters in 'ecto goggles'.
Beer-tasting apparatus.

Back home, several weeks later, with our protective beer-tasting and hint-and-note-recording apparatus in place, that reaction was the same. Even being poured into two glasses from one bottle, it stayed pretty clear — the haze in the photo above is mostly condensation — and was an appealing golden colour. The carbonation was high but there was no fizzing or gushing, and the head was almost chewily stable.

The backbone of this beer’s flavour is pithy, bracing, citric bitterness: grapefruit, we thought. (But not in the Hawaiian-shirt-wearing ‘juicy banger‘ sense — more as in ‘Blimey, this is a bit much at breakfast time!’). It might possibly be too bitter for some, in fact. There was also some dry-porridge-oat, bran-flake cereal character, and a touch of plain salt and pepper that it would be a bit much to call ‘spiciness’.

It wouldn’t quite pass for Belgian but nor is it a wacky ‘reinvention’ of anything — it’s just a solid, tasteful, practical beer that we could easily spend a whole evening drinking, especially given its very civilised alcoholic strength. It’s a definite contender.

Somerset and saison are a good match, we reckon. It’s an industrial-rural county where, in summer, dust, pollen and motorway pollution get in your throat. Cider can deal with that, of course, but beer with a touch of funk and a bit of fizz is perfect as well.

Next up in this series, a footnote: we’re going to taste a couple of Belgian saisons and some American ones to calibrate before the final event.