How do brewers know what goes together, when coming up with recipes? This is a question I find myself asking increasingly often, usually after having scanned a pump clip or beer board, and been greeted with a ‘Peruvian kelp-infused green tea and mustard cress pale ale’. Many brewers have this innate ability to know what combinations work, when adding extra ingredients; how flavours pair and complement, and – most importantly of all – how those raw flavours will transfer to the final beer; profiles having been transformed by time spent boiling and/or steeping. Not only that, but it all needs to be factored in on top of the vagaries of the existing malt bill and hop load, as well.
Anyway, this fairly standard thought-process for beermakers popped into my head twice in recent days; firstly last week when drinking a bottle of Alechemy Brewing Co’s Higildy Figildy – a fig and honey saison, brewed in collaboration with Logan Plant of Beavertown (see gratuitous photo below). The second; over the weekend where I tried Brew By Numbers’ 01|03 cucumber and juniper saison, which they suggest, fairly accurately, could be ‘the missing link between beer and gin’. Saisons have become more and more prevalent in recent years; they are fascinating enough when not augmented; but having come through the flurry of black IPA’s, then craft lagers, and later a plethora of sours and session IPA’s – is the previously humble farmworkers’ ale becoming the style for modern ‘craft’ beer tinkering?
— Beavertown Brewery (@BeavertownBeer) January 31, 2014
If you take a look at RateBeer – bear with me for a minute – the list of top-ranked saisons is topped out by Grassroots Brother Soigné, a 5.0% lime, hibiscus and blood orange saison brewed at Hill Farmstead brewery in Greensboro, Vermont. Hill Farmstead are something of the saison experts; ten of the top fifteen on that list are produced at their brewery (last year founder Shaun Hill was even interviewed by, of all publications, Vanity Fair). The Ratebeer collection also features Hill Farmstead Vera Mae, a spring saison brewed with honey and dandelions. Others on the list – such as Tired Hands Brewing Hand Farm have been released after being aged in white wine casks (for closer to home, try Buxton’s White Wine Saison).
I can’t claim to be an expert in the style (or any style; or style in general for that matter) – but maybe the sheer versatility of the saison lies with its rustic, rural history. Brewed to augment the wages and temperaments of seasonal farmworkers, presumably back in the day each farm had their own versions. It doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to imagine they might add ingredients here or there that came to hand, even at the time being careful to make them as fit for farmhands as possible, and therefore balanced, refreshing, and necessarily low in alcohol content. I wonder what the farm brewers of the Low Countries would have made of things like Smack Republic’s Maboneng Maverick; a naartjie peel and black pepper saison?
You know, I think they would appreciate it. Either because they had been busy making batch after batch of what we will probably soon refer to, gratingly, as ‘session saison’ (it’s only a matter of time, let’s face it), or because they had long since gained that appreciation, that knowledge required to augment their natural, local style of beer with complementary ingredients, and the ratios that work. Sure, there’s bound to have been a fair bit of experimentation, ‘suck it and see saisons’ – as there undoubtedly is now, but the soft, floral bitterness of a base saison seems to be the perfect canvas for modern brewers with a twinkle in the eye and a Wholefoods loyalty card. And as a fan of interesting, unusual beer, long may it continue.
Oh, the picture of the yoghurt is because the beermaking process and saisons actually popped into my head three times last week, the final time being in a supermarket chiller isle, confronted by Müller® Greek Style Yogurt Corner® ‘Blissful Honeyed Fig’ and ‘Sunkissed Orange and Nectarine’ flavours. They may as well make the yoghurt beer-flavoured, and be done with it…