‘Tis the Saison to be jolly


I find that good saisons have an edge – something about the body that targets and hits the roof of the mouth and whispers of apples wet and decaying in oak barrels, leaves turning autumnal red and crabapples bletting. It’s funky, pushing a savoury note towards sour. It really brings to mind the experience of fruit on the turn. And then there’s the cork haunting the palate too. Something sharp laid down in the Spring for refreshment during the Summer – the French Biere de Garde tradition. You get a hit of things bottled, a tartness – things vinous. XT Brewery’s saison (named ‘14’ with an ABV of 4.5%) is all of these things and I’ve had it on stillage and via beer engine. 

A non-British beer style, saison works well with casking. Live carbonation seems to suit it and it succeeds where a lot of wheat beer, Pilsner or lager from the cask often fail to live up to their European kegged or bottled counterparts. It’s also quite hazy conjuring another link – cider and the thoughts of summer and harvest again. To filter and clarify the beer, one thinks, would be to remove its soul.

Wine has terroir – a combination of the soil, the sun, the rainfall and the climate. Single varietal grapes in wine couldn’t be a more authentic taste of the region as the fermented fruit constitutes the sole ingredient (preservative sulphites aside). Cider can also have this origin specific accolade but with beer it’s a bit more complicated: It may be that the four ingredients DO come from one region but it would be rare. In Britain the hops increasingly come from America or New Zealand. The malt can be sourced, for example, from Branthill farm on the north Norfolk coast and the yeast will be the brewery’s own – often originally donated from another brewery. Some beer makers have a borehole to their own spring water – others start with mains water which they often ‘burtonise’ – chemically adding gypsum salts to the water. I’ve found that this gives beers a sodium note a bit like some mineral waters. 

All these ingredients, however, and their method of use can still produce a beautiful saison brewed from anywhere. They still fill the romantic drinker’s mind with visions of the rustic farmhouse idyll. Beer has the ability to conjure up whole fictional scenarios. The same might be said of a heavy full roast stout bringing up images of the fireside and winter. Some of it has been imagined for us by the beer’s name and some of it through advertisement and pump clip illustration, but I think some of it suggests itself. If you get your hands on a light crisp Pilsner or a cool wheat beer, hot weather, outside tables and sun flooded cobbles spring to mind. There is a kind of taste & aroma synesthesia at work throwing up memories that aren’t necessarily your own. 

This has a huge versatility and potential. There are light session beers for lengthy socializing around the bar, high alcohol imperial stouts and barley wines to be sipped with a sweet dessert, sparkling champagne yeast-seeded beers that belong in a magnum served from an ice bucket for special occasions. There are porters for when it’s cold outside, wheat beer and Pilsners for when it’s hot outside, smoked beers, sours, lambics and highly hopped IPAs  scream out to be accompanied by a cheese board. Crisp lagers and Indian food were married in heaven, fruity bitters and rye beers are perfect with red meat dishes. Basically beer has a story and a setting that goes with it at every turn. For whatever the food, climate or occasion, there’s a beer that goes with it and enhances the experience. 

There has in recent years been a huge amount of influence and counter-influence across the globe about beer. The new world (a patronizing term for America, Australia and New Zealand when we refer to beer – include South America when you refer to wine) has space, land and climate in its favour. Vineyards and hop gardens abound. Generous sun can cultivate hops with potent oils meaning punchy flavoursome beer. 

The styles are often British – barley wines, pale ales, India pale ales, ESB, porters and stouts. Sometimes Belgian – dubbels, triples, abbey and trappist style beers. There’s French – biere de garde/saison, German – weissbier, rauchbier, kolsch and Berliner weisse sours and Czec -Pilsners. However, the passion in the efforts to recreate them often produce beers of fantastic quality which are then copied, emulated and given a new twist. The style ricochets from nation to nation. New world brewers are at least as good at (but often better) at making saisons, Pilsners, dubbels, IPAs and porters as they’re given a refreshing new lease of life from the wealth of their native ingredients. 

Though each of the four main elements of our drink may qualify for an OAC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee) – a badge of origin that cannot be used outside the named region, the greater sum of its parts has no need for it. It’s an international effort. Each country discovers the product and as David Bowie announces in the Zoolander walk-off cameo, each party then “duplicates and elaborates”.

You’ve tried the Colorado Citra hopped saison Milan – it’s over to you

The vinous note, the taste of cork, the fug of softening apples and a multitude of sunburst colours form a hazy liquid. That saison was poured by gravity from a cask in a British pub garden in Summer. It hasn’t been anywhere near a French farmhouse in Nord pas de Calais. It came from Long Crendon in Buckinghamshire but it could have also come from a Bermondsay railway arch or a small town near Milan, an industrial estate in Brussels or from a gleaming new brewhouse in Colorado. It’s a saison and it comes with its own romantic baggage. Beer needs no terroir, just an alchemic passion from the brewer and the welcoming senses of the drinker.

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