What to sip for for the New Year, for Hogmanay, as we wait for the baby in the sash to kick the old bearded guy with the staff out of the room as we wait for the odometer of life to click over one more digit?
What better than saison, one of the great ale styles. One, Hennepin, from Ommegang of Cooperstown is one of my favorite sips out of central New York state and actually available at better gas stations in the Albany region for under five buck a 750 ml. [Ed.: …just imagine…] The other two are both made by Brasserie Dupont of Tourpes, Belgium. The simpler 250 ml of Saison Dupont was picked up at the LCBO for the merest farthing while the organic Forêt was at the Finger Lake Beverage Center (right about here) probably for the best part of ten bucks. Forêt says that it is made of 100% organically grown hops and barley, that it was made without pesticides or chemicals (a broad claim if ever there was) and that it was made from filtered artesian well water. That is a lot of talk. One hopes it is for the best. All three are bottle conditioned.
Michael Jackson notes in his early work The World Guide to Beer that saison is a style from south central Belgium which makes it a geographical neighbour to northern France’s slightly funkier bières de garde like La Choulette. To my mind, saison is a celebration of the finest pale malt grown south of the English channel, full of fruit and soft water, perhaps earthy where bières de garde is pungent. Let’s see if my pre-conceived notions are in fact accurate.
Saison Dupont: 8 pm. New Years In Scotland has come. Very nice. Rich and round with masses of dry palt malt. Lively antique gold ale under replenishing white foam. Fruitier on the nose than in the mouth. There is a pronounced graininess to the malt with only the slightest nod to pear fruit perhaps. The yeast is slightly soured milky. There is hop which is dry, twiggy or maybe even straw-like because it is not like twigginess of Fuggles, devoid of English green or German steel.
Hennepin: 9:30 pm. Much fruitier than Saison Dupont, not as bone dry. Golden straw under light white foam. Pear and apricot juicey with some light sultana notes later. Soft water but with a stoney aspect like Riesling. Some nutmeg spiciness to the yeast but primarily creamy. There is a bit of burlap as well but it is a hearty tone that works with the juice rather than something divergent and discordant. One of my favorite brews.
Forêt: 10:30 pm. Golden straw under white foam. Again, drier than Hennepin but a notch fruitier than Saison Dupont. The aroma is burlap and malt, richly earthy organic like early turning spring turf. Quite remarkable. Not so much morish yet pear juicey nonetheless with lots of bread crust, the mustiness (but not dairy sour) of cheese rind with a notch of the potato peel you get in a bières de garde like La Choulette Noël. Hops mainly straw but also some twig and green. A very complex beer.
All in all a worthy session of sharing with folk who say things like “ugh, that tastes weird” and “potato peel?!?!” Saison and bière de garde are not so much an acquired taste as the point of inquiring into the love of ale. There are few other food or drink experiences where the elemental or primal is so undervalued – perhaps sherry but I have bought a half bottle of sherry for many times what a double of saison would cost.