Saison: 3 Farmhouse Saison, County Road Beer Co., PEC

I am not exactly sure of this beer’s name. In its fullest, it is County Road 3 Farmhouse Saison. And it is a saison made out in a farming district. But as it is made by County Road Beer Co. of my wonderful nearby neighbouring wine region, Prince Edward County, I will just call it “3” entirely out of endearment. Careful readers will recall how I visited the site of its brewing almost two years ago just as the concrete for the brew house floor was being poured. For some months now, their saison has appeared in the government store.

You know, it must be horrible to be a saison. Of all the classes of beer, saison is the one which still illustrates the original meaning given to the concept of “style” by Michael Jackson.

There are certain classical examples within each group, and some of these have given rise to generally-accepted styles, whether regional or international. If a brewer specifically has the intention of reproducing a classical beer, then he is working within a style. If his beer merely bears a general similarity to others, then it may be regarded as being of their type…

Saison sits weighed under by the classic example, Saison DuPont. Cursed by it. Blessed by it. Luckily I have my New Years Eve 2005 notes to remind me of the particular tyrannical slavery I must subsume myself, my experience under each and every time I encounter any other beer claiming affiliation to the style:

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.

Most importantly, the note is date stamped. This couldn’t have been the 42 year old me’s first Hogmanay drink. Likely already wobbly. Still, it’s interesting that I describe what I wasn’t tasting. Spare, dry stuff saison. Yum.

Saison can be horribly mistreated. Somewhere in the archives I have yet to bring over to this new system, I note that I had a saison which was sweet and fruity. In 2010, I wroteI feel bad about pouring that Three Floyds saison down the drain but it really was poorly thought out…” For me, that is usually the case when saisons go wrong – when many beers go bad, in fact. Blame the original designer. But if saison is hamstrung by the ghost of brewing past, shackled by its own classic example, is it possible that saison designers have less wiggle room? Does this cause the accusations to fly more often? P’raps.

How does this one stand up? It pours an attractive golden pinewood with orange hues. Clouded and effervescent. All under a growing stiff egg white head. It gives off aromas of bubblegum, white grapefruit pith and a bit of dry twiggy herb. Around the gums, the pith and twig come forward with French bread crumb laced with white pepper and a little parsley – then a little tweek of orange, a heart of cream of wheat, a nod to honey and dry lavender in the finish.

What is not to like? Only two BAers, one unhappy. Sadly style foolish as so many are.

Beer and Art: The Harvesters, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565

Nosing around the Met‘s digitized collection a bit more, I came across “The Harvesters” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder from 1565. Not hard as it was on the front page. I have posted a few times about paintings by his son, the imaginatively named Pieter Bruegel the Younger, over the years but this one struck me as perhaps illustrating a few things worth thinking about.

Look at the scale of the people compared to the height of the grain. One of the characteristics of Battledore barley two hundred years later in Britain was that it had a short stalk. It could survive hail or wind better than other varieties but didn’t provide all that useful straw that we learned about in relation to beer in New York before the switch to barley from wheat. The stalk was in itself important to the community as a multi-purpose material for mattress stuffing to looser wheat mash spargings. In “The Harvesters” the stalks are tall and entire stooks* are taken from the field with care. The stooks are strong enough to serve as a bench for the workers having their meal.

Harvest time is big stuff. The image is a narrative of agricultural economy in the Renaissance. If you click on the image at the met site, you can zoom in quite closely. Look at how the topography is used to illustrate the economic activity. The field being harvested is on the top of a hill. Scythed and stooked, it is carried one by one to the bottom of the hill where it is loaded on a cart and carried away. There are three communities in the painting. The hilltop has a church to the upper left seen through the trees. Down below there is a manor of some sort where some are swimming while others are killing a tied up goose as a blood sport. In the far distance, there is a coastal town with ships in the harbour. Is one point of the painting’s structure that the grain gets exported?  Or is beer made from the grain getting shipped out?  I should cross reference the painting with Unger.

Where is this place? The blurb attached to the image by the Met says:

Bruegel’s series is a watershed in the history of western art. The religious pretext for landscape painting has been suppressed in favor of a new humanism, and the unidealized description of the local scene is based on natural observations.

But is this really a local scene or an imaginary one? Where is it? Bruegel lived in coastal Antwerp, Belgium a city of about 100,000 at the time and the richest in Europe. He was born in the river town of Breda, another community now in the Netherlands but then also in the Duchy of Brabant. Perhaps one of those two centres is in the background.  Could you find the field and stand where the artist stood?

But what about the beer? As one commentator notes, the scene is about producing and consuming. Or – if you are the goose – producing, torturing then consuming. The workers are eating bread and cheese as well as pears that one guy is shaking from the tree to the upper right. And they are drinking. A central character is a man carrying two large jugs up the path. Another man in the circle having a meal drinks directly from a jug. A fourth jug with what looks like a loaf of bread on top sits in the uncut wheat to the lower left.

We are told by Markowski that saison and biere de garde were brewed for centuries in the Low Countries and northern France to attract and retain workers. Farmhouse beers. The scene in “The Harvesters” is smack-dab in the middle of that culture, in the saison zone that included Brabant. Unger explains that particularly in the sixteenth century, tax records indicate a wide number of names for various grades of beer: “… dun and scheynbier and volksbier and scharbier and scherbier all turn up. No matter the name, it was always cheap.”** Was that what was in the jugs? We can’t reach back to ask those in the picture what they called their drink or even if it was in fact beer. But it could be and, frankly, likely was so… it is what it was. Day drinking 1565.

*I use the SW Ontario usage, spelling and pronunciation of the in-laws.
**at page 129.

Massachusetts: Jack D’Or, Pretty Things, Holyoke

If you have read this blog for a while you will appreciate that I like saison. A few years back I wondered out loud if it was going to ever be the next big thing and I may have had my wish granted to some degree as they are out there even if they haven’t exactly bumped macro pilsner off the shelf. Pretty Things, which calls itself a beer and ale project, says this is simple table beer but they are being coy. A sensible $5.99 paid for a bomber belies the quality here. A while back, I inhaled upon one of their Saint Botolph’s Town rustic dark ales. It happened so fast, without a moment to type notes. I have high hopes for this one.

It pours yellowed straw ale under a fine white head. The aroma is lightly citrus with herbals. I once grew lemon verbena and which I can’t say it reminds me of that it did remind me that I once grew lemon verbena. There is also a creamed sweet maltiness. In the mouth, there is pith and white pepper, twiggy minty notes as well as a cream soft malty underbelly, smoothed from the oats. A bit of pear juice but also a nod to cox orange pippin apple as well as a mid-mouth astringency. Apparently no spices whatsoever if the brewer is to be believed (who’s calling them liars? you??) so it coaxes all the herbal notes from hops. And yeast strains. Why don’t we argue more about having more interesting yeast strains? But no spices. Sorta like those early Queen albums proclaimed in the liner notes that no synthesizers were used now that I think of it. In fact it goes rather well with 1974’s Queen II now that I think of it. I don’t know if it would be Zepworthy for, perhaps, even Houses of the Holy, a record I might rather pair with Fantome but still it does remind you that these earthier manorial beers like certain aspects of the 1970s overly dramatic folk tale art rock playbook, even for their pre-democratic roots, are far more than table beer.

I would like to try it against Hennepin. I am thinking this is a bit bigger and maybe more complex but shares the moreishness. Like all saisons, primal. I particularly like the use of the cap security label to tell me that this is a representative of their April 2009 Third Batch. We are in this for the data after all. BAers are in love.

Grill, Shed, Steak, Rain, Bieres de Garde And Saisons

The trouble with charcoal grilling is that when the rain comes you can’t turn it off. Propane, on the other hand, has a nice dial that has a “0” setting. But there is the garden shed and, when it rains and you have visitors, it can turn out to be a delightful place to while away a late afternoon hour reading last week’s newspapers in the recycling bin, listening to AM radio and comparing a few examples of bieres de garde and saisons.

We opened the Ch’ti Blonde from Brasserie Castelain à Bénifontaine first, a gold ale called a saison (though French not Belgian) by the BAers but a biere de garde by Phil Markowski in his book Farmhouse Ales under a white mouse head that resolved to a froth and rim. It was the favorite of the set with cream malted milk, pear juice and nutty grain. Very soft water. I actually wrote “limpid cream of what graininess” but I am a little embarrassed by that pencil scribble. It gets a fairly poor rating from the BAers but maybe that is because they were not in a shed when they tried it. Castelain’s Blond (no “e”) Biere de Garde was drier but still creamy fruity, not far off the greatest example of a Canadian export ale. Light sultana rather than pear. Also dry in the sense of bread crusty rather than astringency. Lighter gold than the Ch’ti but, again, the rich firm egg white mousse head and far more BAers approve. By this time the shed dwellers had decided that steak could in fact be finger food and also that these ales were an excellent pairing with chunks of rib and New York strip. The Jenlain Ambree by Brasserie Duyck was another level of richness altogether, the colour of a chunk of deep smoked Baltic amber, the richest lacing I have ever seen left on a glass. Hazelnut and raisin, brown sugar and black current with a hint of tobacco. Lately I have been thinking that amber ales are the one style that could quietly slip away and never be missed. Placing this in the glass in the hand in the shed as the rain thumped on the roof and steak was eaten was an instructive treat as to what ambers can be, though 6% of BAers hesitate to be so enthusiastic.

I think this is the worst photo I have ever posted so I will keep it tiny unless you choose to click on it for the full effect. Apparently there is a limit to the beery photographic arts and I have made it my own. The 3 Monts to the left was picked up at Marche Jovi in nearby Quebec for a stunningly low price of under six bucks. Plenty of malteser and pale malt graininess with yellow plum and apple fruitiness, straw gold with more of the thick rich head, cream in the yeast. The water was not as soft was either beer from Castelain but all BAers love it. By Brasserie De Saint-Sylvestre who also made this biere nouvelle. To the right, the Fantome Winter was one of the stranger beers I have ever had and, frankly, a disappointment. All I could taste was radish, sharp and vegetative, over and all around the insufficient malt. In my ignorance, I didn’t realize that was likely quite an aged beer as the happy BAers explain. Neither the cork or even label, with its unmarked best before portion, give a hint as to the year but that is all right as I suspect I will consider this just a lesson learned even though I generally love Fantome.

By this time there were stars and a breeze as the cold front finished moving through.

Belgium: Brise-BonBons, Brasserie Fantome, Soy

I have to say I am in a conflict with this beer. I have liked all the Fantome I have tried…and I am supposed to approach these reviews with some sense of objectivity…supposedly. I love this beer. There I have said it. And, yes, I would marry it, seeing as you asked. Fresh pear juicy bright. There is a milkiness, a white pepperiness and cream of wheat. There is grain and there is toffee sweet. And there is green hop, arugula. Fabulous masses of thick lacing rich off-white foam over cloudy deep straw. Tea astringency in the end. Here’s the brewer’s website. All 61 BAers share the love.

XOXO. This is the beer you wish you had.

Belgium: Wallowing In Four Saisons


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Saisons are one of best kept secrets in the world of beer. In the recent book What to Drink with What You Eat, awaiting my review, Garrett Oliver of Brooklyn Brewery names “Saison du Fond” – is that a typo of “Saison Dupont”? Yes it is – as his first beer in his fantasy desert island dozen. Early last month I reviewed a book entitled Farmhouse Ales which covers both the southern Belgian and their near neighbours the southern French saisons. In past posts, I have reviewed two Duponts and a Hennepin as well as a funkier form of the Fantome but this collection is one of the best. I am pretty sure I picked up all four at the ever excellent Finger Lake Beverage Center of Ithaca, NY and it speaks to their obvious commitment to quality. I will be particularly interested to note whether the seasonal Farmhouse Ale from Smuttynose of New Hampshire is anywhere near the quality of Ommegang of New York’s Hennepin.

foursaisons2Farmhouse Ale: from Smuttynose of New Hampshire. This beer is part of the their big beer series and comes with its own brewer’s notes:

Like almost every other brewer who read Phil Markowski’s book “Farmhouse Ales” last year I decided that it was time for Smuttynose to try its hand at a saison…We decided that it was all about the yeast so we had White Labs send us a pitch of their saison yeast, which I believe is in the Dupont vein. Dr. White suggested that we ferment the beer without cooling and let the temperature rise to wherever it wants to go. Easier said than done, believe me.

Smuttynose is one of the great brewers these days if only for these notes that set the plan and the background out so clearly. The beer does not disappoint.Glowing orange without the usual underlying amber when I see orange in the beer. Quite still with a slight white rim and a skim of foam. It is as full of fruit as any beer I have ever had – orange, apricot and peach – all coaxed out of the malt without addition. The brewer thinks it is a little too full, too sweet and that is a fair comment but this is in no way sickly. It is more that the fruit overpowers the grain, like a record player with the balance set to far to one speaker – further attenuation would help restore the equilibrium. The fullness has a thick glyceral quality and while there is a spice quality harkening of cumin is it more like the roughness of rye than anything you would have in a Christmas pud. Again, the plan for next year’s version might resolve this. So bigger than Hennepin but well within the ballpark yet respectful of the show of finesse that is Ommegang’s product. All BAers support the cause.

Saison d’Epeautre: from the Brasserie de Blaugies, makers of the fig lambic I tried last June. 2004 marked on the cork. The beer pours a light straw with a white foamy head. On the nose, there is light melony tell-tale saison-ness. The taste is very dry and the body is lighter than I am used to for a saison. Grain huskiness with notes of cantelope, sultana raising and white pepper. Some cream in the dryness but not much. The dry is not an astringent hop-based dry. At the swirl, more milkiness and more white pepper spice. All the BAers like this 6% take on the style. The brewery says this:The german wheat is an unrefined yeast which contains a natural flavour enhancer, giving a good taste to the bread but also to the beer.I don’t think that really makes any sense. Oh, for the lack of decent translation!

foursaisons3Pissenlit: from Fantome of Soy, Belgium. Spring 2004. Once I realized this was dandelion beer I checked out some reviews and wondered what I was in for. Not to worry – at least for me. The beer poured an amber ale under tan frothy foam and rim.
The core flavour is a little hard to put your finger on but it is both familiar and welcome: rich sweetness but biscuity; fresh apple, orange and fresh squeezed lime juices; a bit of white pepper and twigginess; and that tone which must be the dandelion – maybe I am thinking of sorrel in the spring when I go down onto the lawn to eat something growing. It is a mild greenness. The end is a mild bitter with a little huskiness moving into richish cider. Much more attractive to me than other brew reviewers suggest so perhaps beware. This may just particularly suit my tastes. On the swirl, there is cream but much more softly bitter green. At the end of the dregs it is almost like light drinkable cheese.

A beer that reminds me of a white lirac wine I once had whose only accompaniment I could think of was fresh leaf lettuce. This is more robust but in the same range. A beer or a waldorf salad with apples, walnuts and celery. Maybe Thai food, too. BAers see the challenge yet take it on with only 2% saying no despite its thoughtful unconventionality. A beer that makes me wonder if Fantome is the best brewer in the world.

Fantome Saison: also from Fantome of Soy, Belgium. Funnily, I did not like this quite as much as the Pissenlit but I still liked it a lot. Very active amber ale with a creamy white head. In the mouth pear and grape juice with white pepper, biscuit and a drying astringency across the tongue. Chalky notes under the herbal hoppiness not unlike Orval in a lavenderish sort of way. Well hidden strength at 8%. On the swirl, the astringency calms though the white pepper remains. Many BAers ask good questions but still rank it highly. A discomforting beer perhaps but still very attractive.

What a great hobby I have. I could consider saisons all day most every day. It is a real shame that so few craft brewers in North American have taken on the style with two major Belgian-style brewers in the north-east Unibrou and Allagash even ignoring it.

Belgium: Three Saisons for Hogmanay

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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.