“Ohhhh wowwww, that is Barbie pink” – Sumac Me Feel Like a Natural Saison

Posted by on Sep 12, 2014 in Scottish Beer | No Comments


It started with a stapler. Leith’s Pilot Beer have a long-held, and oft-stated, love affair with their Rapesco office hardware. I’ve yet to come across a brewery Twitter account, in my experience, with more of an affinity for thunking pieces of paper together. And yet, it turns out they are not alone. Following a chance holepunch-related tweet in Pilot’s direction*, Benjamin Bullen of Elixir Brew Co suggested a collaboration (one assumes a collab based around brewing, rather than stationery). His cordial offer was accepted – presumably via the medium of crisply-attached A4 documents – and the date set. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of a beer from either Elixir or Pilot, you’ll probably understand what followed wasn’t the typical collaborative beer day.

* If the brewery accounts you follow are full of tweets such as ‘Our new golden ale just delivered to the Tapir’s Treehouse, Bolton!’, then you’re clearly missing out

I caught up with Benjii to get the inside scoop on how two sets of forward-thinking, urbane professionals go about the process of crafting a beer from nothing. According to him, the back-and-forth negotiations went something along the lines of the following (I’m paraphrasing here):-

Pilot – We could do a saison; we’ve got the yeast?
Elixir – I wouldn’t mind doing a red saison?
Pilot – Why don’t we include sumac?
Elixir – Marvellous. I’ve no idea what sumac’s all about, but let’s go for it. Will it be red?
Pilot – Yes
Elixir – If we added kaffir lime leaves, the green would make the red ‘pop’
Pilot – What about cous cous? What would that bring to the party?
Elixir – In the mash? Let’s try it
Pilot – We’ve just bought three kilos of hibiscus
Elixir – Looks like hibiscus will find its way in then, at some point
Pilot – …and some rosewater

Benjii was delighted with the process – it was, to him, a genuine collaboration – everyone threw their ideas around (clearly), conversations were had about what they were going to do, when it was going to be done, and by whom. They kept the malt bill really plain – to allow the colour and tartness to come through; with a base Bramling Cross hopload. Certainly when you’re brewing an Arabian-themed beer originally created for Belgian farmworkers, you want all the ingredients to be noticeable. At one point, chillies were experimented with, but thought to be a step too far – this proves that these kinds of beers, despite the general tone of this blog post, aren’t just ‘chuck it and see’ brews; at all stages, the effects of these wacky ingredients are assessed.

Yet, that said, when the time comes to taste the final beer (pictured above, glowing in the last of the evening sun filtering through the windows of Edinburgh’s Stockbridge Tap), how do you assess it? I’ve never tasted sumac, have no idea what cous cous can do to the flavour or consistency of a beer. How do you quantify things you’ve never tasted before? It was certainly fascinating, trying to pick these ingredients out as defined flavours in the beer. I got a fair amount of rosewater on the finish, largely because I know what Turkish delight tastes like. As an aside to that, it was noticeably dry, limey and tart (from the leaves, and maybe the sumac, I guess).

Certainly, there was almost no trace of alcohol about it, despite coming in at 6.3% abv. As Benjii says, “we knew we could get away with going a little bit higher, because if you’re going to buy a pink hibiscus sumac saison, you probably don’t care if it’s over 6%.” No question; and there was absolutely no doubt about the vibrancy of the colour, either. “When it came out, we were all hoping it was going to be pink,” Benjii continues. “We had an idea that with the hibiscus and sumac it should be pink – but when it came through, we were all looking at it going “Ohhhh wowwww, that is Barbie pink.”

(Oh, and the name? Pilot’s ‘no-pun’ rule went out of the window very quickly – or, at least, was neatly holepunched and placed in a ring binder. In the end, the decision was made to honour the Queen of Soul – and noted fan of Belgian beer – Aretha Franklin, with the pun to end all puns…)

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