Monday, May 19, 2014

National Geographic Live: The Taste of Saison

The National Geographic Society is a long established institution with a long history in geography, cartography and exploration.  Once a year, the National Geographic asks the head brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, Garrett Oliver, to create a beer tasting experience that combines beer with geography and exploration.  I have attended several of these beer tastings.  At each event, Garrett Oliver introduces guests to beers that they have never heard or seen before.  He places each beer in its own context, weaving stories about the brewers and the beers with a combination of facts and humor that keeps the crowd listening throughout the event. 

Each beer tasting has a theme and Garrett Oliver chooses beers that best exemplify that theme.  Previous beer tastings have included "Beers from Where?", a tasting focused on beers from unexpected places, "The Power and the Glory," a tasting focused on high powered beers, and "Mini-Micros," a tasting focused on beers from very small producers.

The theme for this year was a first for Garrett Oliver and the National Geographic ... it focused solely upon one style of beer.  The style was the Saison.  This beer first emerged from the farms in southern Belgium.  According to The Year in Beer, farmers would take part of their harvest in the autumn and brew a beer that could ferment during the cold months.  Once the spring and summer arrived, the farmers had a beer that they could give to their saisonnieres or "seasonal workers." The beers helped quenched the thirst of the workers and, brewed at 3.5% ABV, it did so without causing the workforce to become drunk in the fields. 

As one would expect, each farm had its own recipe for a Saison beer.  The recipes generally were produced with whatever the farms had on hand, plus hops and, in many cases, whatever spices the farmers could get their hands on.  This beer tasting, which featured nine Saisons, provided a good example of the variety that comes with this style.

1.  Brooklyn Half Ale.  The first beer of the night was one of Garrett's own beers, the Brooklyn Half Ale.  It is dubbed a Session Saison, that is, a saison beer brewed as a session beer.  At 3.4% ABV, it clearly falls within the lower alcohol content one expects from a session beer.  Garrett explained that this particularly low ABV was intentional.  The beer was brewed and first released in Sweden (where Brooklyn Brewery recently opened a new brewery).  In order to sell beer in a grocery store, the beer must have an ABV of less than 3.5%.  Most of the beers sold in Swedish grocery stores tended to be of the "industrial variety," i.e., mass produced beers.  Garrett and the other brewers thought it would be a great idea to brew a craft beer that could be sold along side the mass-produced beers in the supermarkets. 

This beer pours a light straw color, with aromas that suggest grass or flowers.  Those aromas also carry over somewhat to the taste of the beer.  There is a noticeable tartness or bitterness, which comes from the fact that the beer has 40 IBUs.  The brewers used Sorachi Ace hops, which principally contributed to the aromas, but also provided some of the traditional hop elements in the taste.  This beer is not yet available in the United States.

2.  Allagash Saison.  The next beer was the Allagash Saison.  I am familiar with Allagash, which operates out of Portland Maine.  I have had several of their beers, including the reknown White and the Curieux Ale.  The Allagash Saison is a brewed with 2-Row blend, malted rye, oats and dark Belgian candi sugar.  The brewers hopped the beer with Tettnang, Bravo and Cascade hops. 

Their efforts produced a beer that has a golden hue, with aromatic elements of spice and tropical spice.  I had a harder time registering the aromatic notes of this beer, but they came through in the end.  As for the taste, the brewers suggest "citrus and a peppery spice," which is a good characterization of the beer."  The beer also had a tartness and a dry finish that I think has become a characteristic of a saison.  With a 6.1% ABV, the Allagash Saison felt like a high powered beer compared to the Brooklyn Saison.  Fortunately, this beer is available in the United States and I have seen it in local grocery stores.

3.  Rue Saison de Lente.  The Bruery has established itself in recent years with some very interesting beers.  One of those beers is the Saison de Lente, a beer that, as its name suggests, is brewed in the springtime.  Unlike the previous two beers, I have actually had this one before ... and I even wrote a review about it.   I have to admit that I did not remember having the beer at the time of the tasting.  I am not sure how that necessarily bodes for this beer. 

Still, the Saison de Lente set itself apart from the first two Saisons by the use of Brettanomyces or wild yeast.  The wild yeast was mild in comparison to some of the other Brett beers that I have had in the past.  The yeast provided aromatic elements of grass and wild flowers, along with some citrus from the hops.   The brewers suggest that this beer pairs well with strawberry salads, turkey burgers and roasted bell peppers.  The Saison de Lente was a nice transition from the first two beers to the next one.

4.  Boulevard Saison-Brett.  This beer took the Brettanomyces to another level.  The Boulevard Saison-Brett featured the wild yeast much more prominently than the Saison de Lente.  This provided a funkiness that was perhaps a throwback to the Belgian farmyards of times past.  When the farmers brewed the beer, they used wild yeast or reused yeast that provided a certain funk to their beers. Boulevard brews its saison with pale malt and malted wheat, along with magnum and amarillo hops.  The brewers also used corn flakes in the brewing process. 

The beer exhibited everything one would expect from a Brett beer ... a certain type of grass and earth that pervades the aroma and taste, only to be complemented by some grapefruit notes from the Amarillo hops.  Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this beer, according to Garrett Oliver, is the fact that Boulevard Brewing referments its Saison-Brett in a keg, as opposed to a stainless steel container or a wooden barrel.

5.  Wild Beer Company Somerset Wild.  "There is something about saying, Wild Beer Company, Somerset Wild, Evercreech, Somerset, United Kingdom."  That is how Garret Oliver began his explanation of the fifth saison beer.  The Somerset Wild provided a nice divergence from the Saison de Lente and the Saison-Brett.  A departure from the wild, barnyard notes provided by wild yeast.  I don't remember the specific malts or yeasts used to produce this beer; however, the Wild Beer Company did use Sorachi Ace hops in the beer. 

This beer pours much like the other Saisons that we tasted to this point ... golden hued, with notices of tropical fruit that provide a tangy and somewhat tart flavor.  The bottle's line -- "Crisp + Zesty + Spicy" -- is accurate.  The beer is definitely crisp, somewhat zesty and does have spice notes that reinforce its saison style and demonstrate how the saison was able to cross the English Channel and emerge in a rather interesting form.  After this beer, the saisons presented by Garrett began to take on a whole different character.

6.  Brooklyn/Mountain Goat Ridgy Didge.  After trying a saison from the United Kingdom, Garrett Oliver took the guests half way around the world to try one from Australia.  Actually, the beer is a collaboration between Brooklyn Brewing and Mountain Goat Brewing.  Mountain Goat is located in Richmond, Victoria, and it is one of the older craft brewers in Australia. 

The Ridgy Didge took the fundamental characteristic of a saison -- the brewing of a beer with what is available to you or around you -- and gave it a distinctly local outback flavor.  The brewers used lemon myrtle and Tasmanian pepper berries when they brewed the Ridgy Didge.  These ingredients helped to contribute to a unique aromatic and flavor profile, one that made this beer smell and taste more like a hefeweizen than a saison.  There were definitely aromas and flavors of clove and banana in this much more amber-hued offering.  Those flavors are probably more the result of the lemon myrtle, as the pepper berries are more hidden in the background and only emerge later as you sip the beer.

7.  Franches Montagnes Square Root 225. The tasting continued on the international leg of the tour, with the next stop being Switzerland.  The unique, individual characteristic of this beer begins with the name.  The square root of 225.  The answer is also the age of the brewery, Brasserie des Franches Montaignes or BFM.  This saison is different from the others that we tasted in that it is aged or matured for four months in Saint Bon Chien barrels.  Those are the barrels that BFM ages its signature beer, the Abbaye de Saint Bon Chien.  The beer is then aged for Like the Ridgy Didge, the Square Root of 225 had its own distinct flavor.  Distinct even from the Ridgy Didge.  This beer was very tart, bitter and astringent.  The tartness was intentional, as the brewers were playing a sort of prank on the domestic market, which they believe is not ready or willing to accept such beers.  I love tart beers, even sour beers, so that prank would not have worked on someone like me.

8.  Saison de Pipaix. As the beer tasting winds down, Garrett Oliver returned the guests to the home of the Saison with the Saison de Pipaix, which is produced by Brasserie a Vapeur.   The brewers describe the beer as being brewed in the traditional Wallonian style of a saison.  Garrett described this Saison that one that confounds people because of the flavor elements that can be found in this golden/amber hued offering.  The brewers describe those elements to include black pepper, ginger, sweet orange peel, curacao, and star anise.  All of these flavors did make themselves known as the beer is sipped.  The brewers also note that this beer has been brewed by Brasserie a Vapeur since 1785.  That would make this beer a very old example of a saison and is a nod to how some brewers may have produced saisons back in the 18th and 19th centuries.  As the first Belgian saison in this beer tasting, it was an interesting introduction to the style as brewed in the country of its origin.

9.  Avec les Bon Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont.  In my opinion, Garrett Oliver always seems to save the best beer for last.  This tasting was not any different.  Garrett introduced everyone to Brasserie Dupont, which is considered to produce the gold standard of saisons.  The last beer is the Avec Les Bons Voeux de las Brasserie Dupont or "With the Best Wishes of Brasserie Dupont."  With an ABV of 9.5%, this beer is like a "super" Saison or Imperial Saison.  The beer was very smooth, with almost a cordial like body.  The aroma and taste of the beer has been described as having a golden color with elements of marmalade and spicy apple and pair aromas.  I have to be honest that, after having tasted eight beers, my smell and taste senses were a little "compromised."  The description continues by observing the taste of the beer as having notes of pepper, dates, sour cherry, earth and spices.  Other descriptions note citrus, bananas and cloves.  While I cannot say that I recall any of those elements, what I can say is that the Best Wishes of the Dupont Brewery was the best saison of the tasting.

In the end, this was a great tasting that that exemplified the variety that falls within the style of the saison.  As always, Garrett Oliver did an excellent job in terms of describing the beers, telling stories about the beers and generally keeping the interest and attention of the crowd.  He also did a great job in terms of selecting the beers, showing that one can taste a wide range of different beers even when the tasting is limited to one style.  

Until next time...


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