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.

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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.

Saisons Pt 8: The Last Two

As we draw near the end of this series of posts reporting our experiences of tasting British-brewed saisons, we’ve abandoned any attempt at theming: the only thing these last two have in common is that we bought them both from Beer Ritz.

Before we get down to our brief tasting notes, here’s a reminder of what this is all about: we want to have a short list of three we can wholeheartedly recommend. So, while ‘Do we like it?’ is a good starting point, whether other people might like it is also important and, in practice, that means we’re not after madly left-field interpretations.

  • Durham Brewery Raspbeery [sic] Saison, 5.6% ABV, 500ml @ £4.20.
  • Weird Beard Saison 14, 6%, 500ml @ £3.52.

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Saisons Pt 7: More Lemon, More Sour

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.

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Saisons Pt 6: Relatively Twist Free

As our stash of UK-brewed saisons runs low, it gets harder to find a connecting theme: what this last bunch have in common, at least according to their labels, is the absence of headlining (important word) herbs and spices.

All of this batch, as it happens, were provided to us free of charge by online retailer Beer Hawk:

  • Wiper & True ‘The Breeze’ — 3.5% ABV, 500ml, usually £2.79.
  • Otley Saison Obscura — 5.5%, 500ml, usually £2.79.
  • Bad Seed Saison — 6%, 330ml, usually £2.59.

We first encounted ‘nomadic’ brewers Wiper & True not long after they had started up in 2012 when Bailey’s brother picked up a gift set of their beers. We’ve tried various of their brews since and haven’t quite been convinced, though we’ve found them far better on draught in Bristol than in bottles at home. This one-off saison is part of a series and has an admirably detailed label which looks as if it ought to be attached to a clipboard in a hospital, providing information on hop varieties, malts and even which yeast strain has been used — ‘House saison blend’.

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Saisons Pt 5: Smiling Somerset

This is the first single brewery post in our series of saison taste-offs, in which we consider two beers from Somerset’s Wild Beer Company.

Back in 2012, the Wild Beer Co were brand new and making waves thanks to savvy use of social media and a compelling story: they planned to harvest the same wild yeast that ferments Somerset scrumpy cider and use it to produce British beer with a Belgian twist. We first tried what was then their flagship, Epic Saison, in Bristol and loved it, not least because, believe it or not, there weren’t many UK-brewed saisons around back then.

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Saisons Pt 4: Big Names

For this week’s saison-tasting session, we decided to tackle two beers from breweries with heavy reputations: BrewDog and Burning Sky.

We were sent both as samples by the breweries but…

  • BrewDog Electric India — 5.2% ABV, 330ml, £1.80 at their online store (when it’s in stock).
  • Burning Sky Saison à la Provision — 6.7%, 330ml, at, e.g., Beer Gonzo for £3.95. (Also available in 750ml corked bottles.)

We had vague recollections of trying BrewDog’s saison last year, on keg at their Camden bar, and finding it ‘quite good’. The flame-coloured label and customarily hyperbolic copy suggest that it ought to have been more memorable:

An unholy union between a Belgian Saison and an India Pale Ale… A lightning bolt of awesome that resuscitates your tastebuds… Electric India is a hoppy saison brewed with lashings of heather honey, crushed black pepper corns and enthusiastically hopped with mountains of Amarillo and Nelson Sauvin.

Unholy! Lightning bolts! Lashings! Mountains! Boy howdy!

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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?

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Saison Season Pt 2: The Herbalist

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.

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