At the risk – or perhaps hope – of achieving notoriety in Private Eye’s Neophiliacs column, I declare that saison is the new black IPA. I am not saying that to knock it or anyone who brews saison. I love the stuff. Which was why I was delighted to be invited to London Fields Brewery for the launch of the latest in their Bootlegger Series: Eastside Saison.
Over the past year or so, “saison” beers have exploded their presence like overprimed bottles of homebrew. Craft brewers have been cranking up their imaginations to produce a new variants of a beer style with its origins in the Belgian farmhouse of bygone eras. And why shouldn’t modern brewers be creative? When it comes to style, saison is the bebop of beer: based on a few sketchy ideas, the whole comes together with some firecracking improvisation.
Which is a roundabout way of saying there is nothing fixed about a saison: it is a moveable feast*. Nobody can be certain what those ancient farmhouse beers tasted like. Brewed in winter for slaking the thirsts of summer farm labourers, each farm brewing their own one-off batch. As craft as you like, it’s no wonder so many brewers want to try their hand. I was very keen to taste the London Fields interpretation.
“I’d like to try the Eastside, please.” This was not me, but the young Hackney woman at the bar of London Fields Brewery’s rather fetching taproom in deepest Hackney. Not so coincidentally, I had said those exact words when I had arrived, a couple of hours earlier.
“Cask or keg?” came the barman’s reply. I think I detected a touch of pride in his voice.
“Which would you recommend?” Was her not unreasonable response.
At this point, I chimed in. “Keg,” I offered. “It’s got a lovely sparkle. I think a saison should have a nice fizz, don’t you?”
“Oh, I don’t know anything about beer,” she said, almost apologetically. This clearly was not your normal beer launch.
“Normal”. Would that I could be so blasé about beer launches. Those launches I am lucky enougt to attend are often very beer-writery affairs. Nothing wrong, but I never hear a lack of beer knowledge professed. It was nice to be able to offer a little advice – if opinionated.
London Fields Brewery had set up their launch as an open day for the local community. Walking the 200 yards from the station to the tap room adjacent to the brewery, I spot a bushy-bearded, oddly-trousered gentleman riding a fixed-gear bike. I toyed with the idea of playing solo game of hipster bingo before berating myself, ex-Islingonite pot, that I am, to the Hackney kettle.**
However, far from being (merely) a seam of hipsterism, London Fields’ locals turned out to be a mix of young and seasoned – and soon to be saisoned, some knowledgeable about beer, and all curious about the small brewery in their midst and their new beer.
Eastside Saison cask AND keg: what are they like?
When I arrived and took a first sip from my proffered glass of Eastiside Saison, it wasn’t what I was expecting. Was this really the Eastside Saison? I looked at the brewery’s own tasting notes. “… a 5.5% Belgian farmhouse saison with a contemporary twist. Grains of paradise, bitter orange peel and ginger were added to the brew.”
Now, I wouldn’t recognise a grain of paradise if I had my head in a sack of them, but my sense of dominant ginger spice, a tang of orange zest was in broad agreement with the brewer’s notes. Yes, quite a spicy affair (cloves, cinnamon, allspice).
“Nice beer”, I thought, “but I do miss a bit of fizz.” I referred to the notes again. “High carbonation wipes the tongue clean with each [sip].” I realised I’d been given the cask-conditioned version and there was probably a keg version to fit my expectations. I was right.
And there was the sparkle. Not the artificial and short-lived bubbles of a too-warm bottle of own-brand cola, but the exciting tingle of persistent effervescence, on the sensible side of space dust. Spiced almost like a Belgian witbier (Hoegaarden) but peppery and with a malty brioche-like breadiness. The high carbonation vibrant but without taking anything away from the inherently zingy nature of the beer.
The fashion for saison-style beers doesn’t mean that saison is a New Thing. Unlike the invented, oxymoronic black IPA, there is a history to this style.
The rise of modern-day the saison
Why should I be so keen to recommend the keg Eastside Saison if a saison is a moveable feast that can be more-or-less anything? The style’s more recent history – and its very survival, can probably be placed in the hands of a few specialist Belgian brewers, the most well-known of which is probably Brasserie Dupont.
The Saison Dupont is a world classic, acknowldedged by Michael Jackson in his Great Beer Guide (2000), and accorded the title “Best Beer in the Wolrd” by the US Men’s Journal, in 2005. It’s light in colour and body, fruity but dry, lemony-refreshing, and as far as I know, not flavoured. But some saisons are spiced and otherwise flavoured, like the Saison de Pipaix from Brasserie A Vapeur, which includes black pepper and anise.
The one unwritten rule might be: a saison is sparkling. We are now used to the beers being bottled unfiltered (usually), with the lively saison yeast still active. Having said “no rules”, saisons are warm-fermented (ales) with yeast tailored for the style. This all makes for a high level of carbonation; they’re champagne-fizzy (but with better head retention). So, to my palate, outside the bottle, this requires keg rather than cask.
It is from Dupont and its sisters that the modern brewing world has taken its saison templates. The style revived and evolved, almost inevitably, by American craft brewers such as Ommegang from New York state, with their Hennepin Farmhouse Saison. Whether this is Michael Jackson’s or Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver’s influence, who can tell? Their Hennepin, incidentally, uses similar spices to those the Eastside Saison is flavoured with.
This year, it seems, saison has become a de rigeur part of a craft brewery’s portfolio in Europe. From Magic Rock in the UK to Mikkeller from Denmark. Even the bigger players have saisons, Marstons has one in their Revisionist series, and Brains has two in their Craft Brewery range. On my recent trip to Partizan Brewing in Bermondsey, they were offering five or six different saisons, spiced and unspiced, golden, copper, and even one that was as dark as a Schwartzbier.
Eastside Saison with food
The effervescence of saisons, and their light but flavoursome nature make for perfect summer beers and ones that are great with food at any time of year. Garrett Oliver in his 2003 masterpiece and defining beer and food book, The Brewmaster’s Table declares, “…if I were forced to choose one [beer] style to drink with every meal for the rest of my life, saison would have to be it.”
Back to the Taproom, we were offered food. An array of cheeses and Sout-east Asain-inspired spiced chicken breast skewer (with apricots).
The Eastside went brilliantly with the full-flavoured, ripe soft French cheese (St. Albray?). Stilton overpowered it somewhat and the nutty, mature farmhouse cheddar was a bit swamped in spice. But it was with the spicy chicken that the Eastside shone. Just as Garrett Oliver says about Dupont, the fresh acidity and gentle bitterness of the beer cuts the slight fattiness of the roasted chicken and the Eastside spices and fruit work nicely with the apricot and south-east Asian flavourings.
Saison is the epitome of craft brewing, putting a modern slant and attitude on an ancient tradition. Eastside expertly adds to the canon. I hope it makes it from the limited edition Bootlegger Series to a more regular seasonal visitor.
And more than that, where black IPA might be a passed trend, saison deserves the wider appreciation it is now getting.
Links and references
London Fields Brewery online shop
Dupont Brewery History (In French, parce que c’est en ce facon je roule.)
Michael Jackson, Great Beer Guide: The World’s Best 500 Beers, 2005, on Amazon.co.uk
Garrett Oliver, The Brewmaster’s Table, 2003, on Amazon.co.uk
* A quote from the Oxford Companion to Beer article on saison. Amazon.co.uk
** Confession: I have been variously oddly-trousered over the years, myself, but am not really able to carry the look off any more. And I’ve had my fair share of unfeasible haircuts and pointedly-different facial hair. Never owned a “fixie” though. Well, not after the age of eight.
Private Eye‘s mini-section, The Neophiliacs, publishes media quotes along the lines of “Brown is the new black”. I really didn’t want to put a reference footnote in the first line.
It seems it’s quite the thing to say “At the risk of appearing in Private Eye…”, according to this Wikipedia article.