Styles & Seasonals
July 21, 2005 Written by Nuffield
Roseville, MINNESOTA -
Even from its name, the saison suggests complexity and mystery. Afterall, when I first learned of the style some years back, I dug into my meagre storehouse of French to infer that this was some kind of “seasonal” beer of Europe. Indeed, I came to see this beer as a great tribute to a world in which the seasons provided a cycle for living, with foods and drinks that were only seasonally available, rather than a global world in which fresh fruits and flowers from a hemisphere away can be had on any winter day. With its potential for packing spices and fruits and the bounty of the farmhouse into a beer that also contains echoes of lambic, the depth can be overwhelming. I was thrilled, then, when a local Ratebeerian, Kevin, invited us to his place for a gathering of saisons that he had put together through travel and trade. That’s where I was, then, on a July day of thunderstorms in Dallas. Our task would be to pick the wheat from the chaff.
I count myself fortunate to live in the same city as a particularly fine group of beer drinkers. First and most important, they’re some of the best friends a beer drinker could have, always welcoming, interesting, and witty. Add to that, they make life tolerable in a city lacking a reputation as a beer mecca, through everyone’s combined efforts at trading, travelling, and otherwise acquiring new and rare beers. We come to beer with different affinities. Bu11zeye travels extensively with work, and he always seems to bring Fantome beers to our tastings, though recently he’s been “the man” bringing some Pizza Port to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW). Kevin and Lumpy, who grew up friends here in Texas, joined the Dallas crew more recently but haven’t wasted time, and now they push the boundaries of our palates with their homebrew. I joined Ratebeer while living in the UK, and I remain far more a malt-head than a hop-head. Unfortunately absent from this tasting were the inestimable Legion242--the only Dallas Ratebeerian to have Ratebeer jargon named after him--and TChrome, a late cancellation, who is the hophead to balance my malt-head tendencies.
When I arrived at Chez Kevin, I took a seat at the card-table that Lumpy was kind enough to bring. Think: bachelor pad. Lumpy’s other contribution to the décor was a large wooden spool of the type used for massive bundles of electric cable. The focus, clearly, would be on the beer.
We opened with a real heavyweight of a beer, Heavyweight’s Saison de la Soeur Golden. An aggressive aroma, with some potential for vinegar, gave way to a “very good drinker” (Lumpy) that is “much softer” than he expected, thanks in part to a lilting carbonation (Kevin). The flavour perplexed Bu11zeye, for lacking any particular vein of flavour, and Lumpy faulted the aroma for its gueuze edge, though I rather appreciated it.
Saison de Pipaix was up next, and we watched as Kevin frayed the cork. It was an omen. With just a slight head of large carbonation, we wondered if it was a bad bottle. The aroma was sour and laden with cork, and the flavour left everyone very disappointed, as we enjoyed the apple vinegar and candy flavours. Lumpy thought some vodka and a pack of Equal (sweetener) would make a nice wine cooler out of this. Bu11zeye reminisced that this was just like the other bottle he had of this, which helped us feel some confidence that it is more to do with the beer than the bottle.
We took a bit of a break for our first bites to eat. I enjoyed a piece of Kevin’s homemade cornbread. That is, until I started chewing on an eggshell. We’re pretty sure his down-home Texas recipe didn’t call for that. Kevin apologized… “I thought I got it all out,” he said. Then Lumpy had some of Kevin’s homemade chilli, and after smelling it he employed a string of profanities that were foreign to my more “family-oriented” vocabulary. Lumpy was kind enough to translate the more creative terms, which led to conclude that the chilli would smell more or less like “sweaty butt”.
Back to the beer, as that is far more inviting. Next up was Fantome’s La Gourmande. Whenever we have a Fantome, someone throws out a reference to the brewer’s supposed habit of opening the cupboard and just throwing some things in. It makes each bottle seem like its own unique creation. Indeed, we were collectively pleased with this piece of art. A beautiful, big, off-white head welcomed us to it, and we spent a good time picking apart the aroma and flavour. Mint, clove, and coriander on the nose, with floral and tobacco notes, was the consensus. A crowd pleaser for its complexity.
We returned to Heavyweight for their Saison de la Soeur Black, and what an interesting pour it provides, like a Belgian schwarzbier. “Black like my soul,” says Kevin. Is this a saison? Malty, malty, malty, and Kevin insists there is some coffee and lime, simultaneously. Undoubtedly, we spent most of our time throwing out comments more akin to a stout, like bittersweet chocolate and campfires. We then enter a debate about whether “interesting” is a positive or negative word; to us it is positive, but to TChrome at a previous tasting, it was a slam. Overall a very positive experience.
The strains of the Velvet Underground ease us into Fantome d’Ete, appropriate for mid-July. Another bountiful head. Kevin brought a bowl of his homemade stew (over the last of the eggshell-laden cornbread) over to our table, skewing our first impressions of the aroma. “I really like it, I’m digging it,” says Lumpy. Citrus leads the way for Bu11zeye and me, some strawberry and melon perhaps, with bread, flowers, and things we just don’t know. “Who knows what’s in it,” Bu11zeye opines, “it makes you a bit nervous.” Very soft mouth feel, very little bite to it, it went down well even though the flavours remained elusive.
Keeping with the Fantome, we went for the BBBrr. “Yummy,” was our collective immediate reaction. “This is the very definition of tannic beer,” says Lumpy, “up front, like licking a two-by-four.” “I’d love to know what they have in their beers,” Bu11zeye can’t help himself from repeating. A sweetness takes the initial edge off, and it becomes extreme sippable. But true to form, there is so much more: almond, fruit, maybe some honey…. Lumpy busts out the issue of Brew Your Own magazine that echoes that Fantome puts “who knows what” into their beer. We break into a debate about whether Kevin’s ownership of the lowest rating for the Free State Owd Mac’s Imperial Stout is proof of his insanity.
We’re willing to go the longest mile for a saison, so we head to Yard’s Saison, for which we have two 12-oz. bottles (all of the previous being 750s). This is among the lowest rated saisons, but we could have told you that without even looking at the rating. An aroma of burnt plastic with some pepper hits us hard, and although it looks the part, the flavour just strikes us as a slightly skunky lager, with a fairly aggressive, tingling carbonation. “BMC-like for a saison”, for Kevin; “undrinkable”, for Lumpy. Watery, and not at all pleasing, by consensus.
Our last saison for the night is the Biere de Miel, the honey-flavored saison from Dupont. The aroma sent us scurrying for comparisons--Kevin and Bu11zeye saying that it was Pepto-Bismol, but there was some agreement with my suggestion of baseball card chewing gums. Indeed, deeper whiffs brought me back to my youth with countless packs of Star Wars trading cards. Lumpy tastes fresh figs, Kevin tastes more Pepto-Bismal (chalky, he says), Bu11zeye gets some honey (but not a lot), and I can’t get my mind off a corn tortilla/tamale edge. But for all of our comments it is still extremely drinkable and it reveals a lot of interesting flavours as it warms. We’re listening to a collection of “favourite Irish pub songs” and my eyes wonder over to Kevin’s collection of beer glasses and paraphernalia, all lovingly displayed in a very large aquarium (no water in it).
We then headed into some other beers, including Lumpy and Kevin’s long-awaited homebrew barleywine, which is wonderfully sweet and deserves a full and slow tasting when I can get my hands on a full bottle. Their homebrew, under the name of “Two Crackers Brewing” is showing great strides from when they began just a year ago, and they attempt the most interesting beers (interesting in a good way, again). As Bu11zeye and I left, Kevin and Lumpy popped open a Ommegang Hennepin for some more saison joy.
What did we learn about saisons, I ask? Lumpy’s suggestion is that it is definitely a wide spectrum, from the Bier de Miel to the black saison of Heavyweight, which is almost like a porter. Bu11zeye takes a very different angle on it. He’s had 20 or so Fantome beers and he sees the commonalities more than the differences, emphasizing the fruitiness and esters. Our collective favourite? The BBBrr stood out for being so tea-like, so interesting. But maybe that’s just the Texas coming out--they love their ice tea down here in Dallas! The Heavyweight Black also gets some commendation, for being so unique in this tasting. La Gourmande rounds out our top three, but it is so easy to come back to Fantome. Indeed, we’re inclined to keep buying Fantomes to see what we’ll find in the next bottle. And you know, Fantome’s innovativeness has one important contribution: it’s an excuse for us to keep drinking.