Everyone's doing saisons these days, and I'm not sure why that is. It's a fairly broad style and you can do a lot with it, like making it strong and fruity or using it as a base for adding strange flavours. Personally, I tend to prefer the simple, crisp sub-5% ones. I guess there's a saison out there for everyone. I wasn't deliberately collecting English examples but I seem to have ended up with three in the fridge simultaneously. So, one evening, I had a taste-off.
It was the craftish neck tag that attracted me to Bad Seed Brewery Saison: "with honey, ginger and grains of paradise" it promised. Intriguing. Seeing lots of gunk in the bottom of the bottle I poured very carefully, getting a mostly-clear pale yellow glassful. The aroma is pleasant, if not exactly exotic: dry straw and a certain white grape juiciness. It's disappointingly plain to taste, having the familiar musty funk of many a saison, with maybe a hint of perfume and pepper deep down, but nothing that delivers the complex spicing promised on the tag. Funnily enough, when it was part of Boak and Bailey's epic saison-off earlier this year, they rejected it because it tasted of too many things. I had no such luck. It's not fancy and interesting, nor does it have the crisp simple elegance of a well-made straight saison: at 6% ABV it's too strong for one thing.
I hoped for better things from Wylam Saisonnier. It promised lemon balm (?) and rosemary. What it delivered to begin with was foam, lots and lots of it, making a mockery of the label's warning to pour carefully. In the glass it's a hazy bright orange and certainly smells of citrus, a sweet and creamy lemon curd sort of thing. The rosemary kicks in on tasting: a savoury, oily herbal vibe that matches the fruit beautifully. I was so charmed by it I didn't notice that any saison character is completely missing: the base beer could be any neutral blonde ale. But I'm not complaining. The ABV is 5.4% ABV so it's sippable without being hard work. A good example of using saison as a jumping off point to make beer do interesting things.
And just to throw a spanner into the works, how about a black saison? The one St. Feuillien did in collaboration with Green Flash was beautiful so I live in eternal hope of repeating the experience. This is Firebrand Black Saison, from Firebrand Brewing in Cornwall. It's 5% ABV and a kind of dark mahogany red, topped by a thick off-white head. It tastes and smells like a very average porter: some light chocolate and crisp roast, but not much else. At the very back of the flavour there's a tiny spark of saison spices, but nothing that really stands out. This stuff is perfectly drinkable but entirely forgettable. And there's the downside of using a saison as base: even something as simple as a bit of roasted barley can drown out any unique characteristics it may have had.
Pile on the rosemary, I say.
Westmalle Dubbel - *Origin: Belgium | Date: 2008 | ABV: 7% | On The Beer Nut: October 2007* It's a longtime favourite today. Westmalle Dubbel goes back to the very beginnings...
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