In French, the word means season, as in the seasons of the year. Spring, summer, autumn, or winter. A generic term, a category with specimens so varied that each is the opposite of another.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the beer style we call “saison” is a varied, open-ended style as well. Call it a seasonal beer unattached to a particular season.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. Look it up anywhere from Wikipedia to the BJCP Style Guidelines, and you’ll learn that saison has its roots in the farmhouses of the French-speaking Walloons of Belgium who spent the winter brewing spicy, refreshing ales to be consumed in the summer by workers pulling long shifts in the fields. So traditionally it’s a summer beer.
But the Wallonian brewing tradition was highly improvisational and localized. Each farmhouse brewed their own beer with the ingredients available at the time, often raised on their own farms. The resulting beers were, unsurprisingly, vastly different from place to place and from month to month.
So unlike the seasonal beers of, say, Germany – which tend toward profile standards of characteristic Teutonic rigidity, with names easy to mark on your calendar like Märzen, Maibock, and Oktoberfest – this traditional Belgian seasonal can be light or dark, strong or sessiony, and anything in between. A December 2006 Style Profile article from Brew Your Own magazine lists a wide disparity of characteristics for the modern style in regards to color, mouthfeel, residual sweetness, strength, hop profile, and spices. The main common thread is the yeast, descended from traditional Belgian strains that produce a characteristic spiciness, an estery je ne sais quoi that makes these beers decidedly farmhousey, even when made in the (sub)urban backyard.
With that range of profiles, I’d say seasonality goes out the window. A strong, dark, spicy saison would be a great nightcap on a cold winter night. I like light, refreshing saisons in spring (I’m pretty sure spring in Texas feels like summer in Belgium anyway). So I brewed one now to be ready by the last week of March.
There was another reason for my timing besides the oncoming vernal equinox. The last beer my wife and I drank together was a bomber of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace, the day before we learned she was pregnant. Our baby is due in April, so what better beer to have on hand to celebrate her return to the world of the ethanol-metabolizing than a hop-forward saison?
I started my brew with a clone recipe of Brooklyn Sorachi Ace from the December 2011 issue of Brew Your Own and a Gallic sense of laissez-faire. The recipe called for 11 lbs (5 kg) of Belgian Pilsner malt, which I increased to 11.75 lbs (5.33 kg) to compensate for lower efficiency on my system (more on that below). This made up the bulk of the fermentables along with 1 lb (453 g) of dextrose in the boil. The recipe also used a 3-step mash, which I did not. I did a single infusion mash at 146°F (63°C). The low mash temperature makes a more fermentable wort, but saccharification takes a little longer so I mashed for 90 minutes instead of my usual 60.
Brooklyn Sorachi Ace is hopped entirely with Sorachi Ace hops, which I couldn’t get locally. Instead of replacing it with a similar substitute, I took a different path entirely. I used 16% AA Warrior hops for neutral bittering, two additions of .37 oz (10.5 g) each at 60 and 30 minutes (~6 AAU in each addition). At flameout, I added 3 oz (85 g) of 15% AA Summit.
I had prepared a 2-liter starter of White Labs WLP 560, an Austin Homebrew Supply-exclusive Classic Saison Yeast Blend. That starter was decanted and pitched into a wort with an OG of 1.073, eleven points higher than my target OG of 1.062. Eleven points!
Little mishaps are common in brewing, and usually a good sign. Minor, easily correctable problems during the brew day keep the brewer on his/her toes, and (I think) make us less prone to serious mistakes that can’t be fixed. But overshooting target gravity by this much is a new kind of problem for me.
Is it even a problem? Obviously my efficiency is much higher than I thought – I’m noting the data for future batches – and the extra malt I added was unnecessary: a “problem” many brewers would love to have. I’m not entering any contests, so the fact that my OG landed past the upper limit of the BJCP range for saison doesn’t concern me. If it fails to attenuate completely, I may end up with a beer that’s too sweet. But if I got the kind of fermentability I was shooting for out of my low mash, that extra sugar should ferment out, leaving me with an ABV higher than I intended.
So if I’m lucky, I’ll be welcoming the spring with a dry, high-alcohol saison. Maybe it won’t be strong enough to qualify as an “imperial saison”, but it should be worthy of some noble title. I’d settle for “ducal saison” or better yet, “marchional saison”. With its extra kick, it might be a little too intense for farm work, but it sounds about right for celebrating the birth of a new Marchese.
I’m pretty sure every homebrewer and beer geek has at least one personal story about how they surprised – and perhaps even converted – some non-craft drinker they know with the awesome power of real beer.
Maybe one night in college you handed an Imperial IPA to your malt liquor chugging buddy, and he quickly commended it before twisting open another 8 Ball. Or maybe you once convinced a co-worker to try a fruity wheat beer at a happy hour instead of a hard lemonade, and she now stocks her fridge with lambics. Or maybe you triumphed over decades of wine supremacy by pulling off a really successful beer pairing with a dinner, to the amazement of friends and/or family. My latest such story is a variation on that theme: a 3-course dinner with beer pairings, served in my own dining room.
The day was Thanksgiving (November 22 for those reading outside the U.S.) and the objects of my proselytization were my wife Lisa’s family: my mother-in-law and father-in-law in town from New Orleans, and my sister-in-law and her husband visiting from the United Kingdom. To set the stage, let me introduce them instead as: a coffee drinker, a whiskey drinker, a Bud Light drinker, and a foodie/pub manager from the south of England.
Out of everyone in attendance, Lisa was the only person who was as convinced of the greatness of this idea as I was. She co-envisioned this event with me but couldn’t join us in the beer tasting thanks to an unfortunate medical condition called “expecting our first child” that isn’t expected to clear up for several months. This toast is for you, X.
The dinner itself was rather unorthodox. We haven’t done turkey on Thanksgiving in my house for nearly ten years, and saw no good reason to start now. We decided to build an utterly un-Thanksgiving-y menu with several commercial Central Texas beers from my cellar as inspiration, while also giving everyone in the family a chance to cook something. Here’s what we came up with.
I should disclose at this point that I don’t usually cook. Brewed beverages and the occasional steak are all I make that’s fit for human consumption, so most of the actual cooking (except for the steak) was done by Lisa and my brother-in-law. But I did choose the beer, so I’ve snatched the right to bill myself as director of the whole production.
Salad Course: Romaine with blue cheese, pecans, dried cranberries, and homemade mustard vinaigrette paired with a bomber of South Austin Brewing Company Saison D’Austin. As a longtime fan of this ubiquitous local saison, I had been dreaming about this pairing for a few days beforehand. This is a very light and refreshing saison, and everyone at the table enjoyed it (especially my sister-in-law the Bud Light drinker). But I found it lacked the backbone to stand up to the bold flavors of the blue cheese and mustard. Something with a bit more spice and/or funk would have served the dish better, so next time I’ll go with something a little more intense – a more phenolic Belgian or something with some Brett – and save the Saison D’Austin for a cheese course.
Main Course: Grilled sirloin with a coffee-chipotle rub served with a relish of tomatoes, tarragon and mustard; dill-roasted tricolor potatoes and oven-roasted asparagus paired with a bomber of Jester King / Mikkeller Weasel Rodeo Imperial Oatmeal Stout. The rub and the steak were the only food items I prepared myself, carefully trying to match the flavor profile of the beer, which features chipotle and kopi luwak coffee. Coffee and pepper were more pronounced in the steaks than the beer, if I do say so myself. But the pairing was a match made in heaven, and the in-laws enjoyed it all so much that we actually drank not just one bomber of Weasel Rodeo, but also the second bomber I had chilled just in case.
Dessert: Pecan pie from the Salt Lick paired with a 12-ounce bottle of Real Ale Sisyphus Barleywine Ale from 2011. Okay, so we didn’t actually make the pie, and I had no idea how it was going to pair with the 2011 Sisyphus, which I had never tried. As it turned out, the rest of the family were stuffed and satisified by now, so the barleywine was shared by me and my brother-in-law alone; 6 ounces for each of us was more than enough. The beer was robust and nutty with toffee overtones, and I thought quite a good match for my favorite pie in the Austin area, though I found myself wishing I had some good vanilla bean ice cream to complete the ensemble. I wasn’t disappointed for long, though, because I soon found myself satiated and … well, let’s just say “sleepy”.
So. A fantastic dinner that we had fun preparing together, and a great opportunity to demonstrate for visiting family why I’m so excited about the Central Texas beer scene. Hopefully I even got them thinking about beer in new ways. Would I do it again? Hell yes. And since there’s nothing “Thanksgiving” about this meal, I may do it again before next year’s holiday season. I hope it inspires you to try something similar.
On a beautiful, cool Saturday afternoon wedged between days of thunderstorms, Jester King Craft Brewery released their new Buddha’s Brew ale during their weekly open house. Beer hipsters (and garden variety hipsters) descended on the brewery for a turnout that scuttlebutt suggests was the biggest the brewery has ever seen on a “non-event” Saturday.
The new ale is a collaboration between Jester King and Austin kombucha company Buddha’s Brew. It’s Jester King’s first beer fermented entirely in oak. The wheat ale wort was pitched with bacteria and fermented in the barrel, then aged for nine months before blending it with Buddha’s Brew Classic Flavor Kombucha. Buddha’s Brew was also on location Saturday giving out free kombucha by the sample and cup. I’ve been a fan of their kombucha for years, so I was excited about the collaboration.
I haven’t been to Jester King in several months, so I was surprised to find a new system in place for the beer tasting. In the old system, $10 bought you a tulip glass and three full pours of whatever you wanted. Now, for $10 you get a card listing the day’s menu with a check box next to each of the 7 beers available:
The bartenders poured 5.5 oz of whatever you ordered and marked the box next to it on the card. If you tried them all, it would equate to a little over two pints of beer and a keepsake glass for $10. So it’s not the steal it used to be, but it’s still a great value, especially if you can get there early enough to go back through the (very long) line 7 times during the 3-hour window they’re open. Even though this new system effectively raises the price per ounce over the previous system, it encourages beer flights instead of pounding pints as quickly as possible. The limited-release selections du jour are thus available to more attendees, and fewer frat boys are stumbling around drunk from too many Black Metals. I’m not sure if the new system was just for this event or if this is how they do it every week now, but I’m a fan of it in theory … if they can get the line moving a little faster.
I started with Buddha’s Brew, the hot new starlet on the set. It was straw-colored with little head and smelled like a Berliner Weisse: lactic, light and wheaty, though I was hoping for more fruitiness on the nose. It tasted like a Berliner Weisse too. Tart, refreshing and wheaty with some vinegar notes and a pleasant mouth-puckering tartness. My only complaint was that it was less complex than I expected. The kombucha didn’t add much flavor; no fruitiness, no earthiness. Nor any oakiness or vanilla from the barrel aging. It could have been any sour wheat ale, albeit a well-made one. Note that I would gladly drink it again if there weren’t more interesting beers available.
My third pour was Mad Meg, an organic bière de provision – a high-alcohol continental style intended for extended aging. At 9.6% ABV, it was a step up from my earlier tastings but smooth enough not to be a shock. It poured a handsome red-orange I attribute to Cara-Munich malt, but I enjoyed thinking of it as an “albino amber”. The aroma was mouth-watering: floral hops and a rich mandarin-like citrus with noticeable alcohol. The flavor didn’t disappoint, either, delivering piney hop bitterness at the start and boozy, bready malt on the finish with no alcohol burn. It was smooth and brilliantly balanced, easy to drink on a fall afternoon or warm enough for a cool night.
I made my way through the tastings leisurely and only got three in my 90 minutes there, but it was well worth the price of admission. Between beers I cleansed my palate with lots of free kombucha from the Buddha’s Brew tent (thanks!). Peach and Pineapple-Super Greens flavors were on tap and delicious.
I left happy (alcohol + probiotics, mmm mmm good!) and inspired. I’ve been thinking about homebrewing kombucha for a long time, and I might start soon using some Buddha’s Brew dregs to culture a starter SCOBY. Someday I actually hope to have draft kombucha in the kegerator for those non-beer occasions. I’m not sure I’ll ever use it in a beer myself, but who knows? And I toast Jester King for their innovation. After all, that’s what supporting local business is all about.
To quote the release:
The first of our beers to carry certified organic labeling will be this year’s version of Drink’in the Sunbelt Hoppy Wheat Beer, followed by our next batches of Mad Meg Farmhouse Provision Ale and Boxer’s Revenge Barrel-Aged Wild Ale. Le Petit Prince Farmhouse Table Beer, Noble King Hoppy Farmhouse Ale, Wytchmaker Farmhouse Rye IPA, Das Wunderkind! Sour Saison, and Bonnie the Rare Berliner Weisse also received full organic certification and will be labeled as such once we run through our current stock of labels. Black Metal Farmhouse Imperial Stout, which is over 70% organic, but uses a small amount of non-organic specialty malt, has been certified “Made with Organic Ingredients” and will carry the Texas Department of Agriculture seal, the next time labels are printed.
Although I may be more organic than some, I’m not really hung up on the organic lifestyle and organic foods. Sure, I belong to a local organic CSA called Johnson’s Backyard Garden. I don’t eat at major fast food chains (or any major restaurant chain at all if I can avoid it, which I usually can – thanks, Austin!). I try not to buy packaged foods with a lot of ingredients I can’t pronounce, but that’s a long way from organic. When it comes to my own brewing, I don’t add a lot of funky chemicals if I can help it – brewing water salts and acids to keep my mash pH down are generally the extent; I don’t spend the extra dough for organic malts and hops. In other words, whether food or drink, I keep it simple for anything I can control, and I don’t sweat the other stuff too much.
But who wouldn’t want to know that the ingredients that go into the beer they drink is of the best quality possible? Whether that means organic, or locally sourced, or whatever your personal hobbyhorse is, the fact that they bother at all means that they have a commitment to quality ingredients: that they care what they put into the beer they sell. That they’re not just here for the craft beer fad, and that they want to establish (and strengthen) their identity in the ever-more-crowded local Austin beer scene.
And that is great news, and a reminder of why I love the folks at Jester King so much. As far as I’m concerned, one of the best breweries in town just got better. I like to think that each of the best local breweries in Central Texas has a knack for something (see recent post here for my thoughts on the awesome power of Live Oak Brewing to replicate classic German styles). I always thought Jester King’s knack was simply to bring European-style farmhouse ales to a market otherwise lacking in them. But now Jester King appears to be doing more: with this gesture, they’ve demonstrated they want to be a leader in quality and innovation in all ways (including taking on the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission late last year over some silly beer labeling and distribution laws) in the Austin craft beer community. If there’s a battle commencing between great beer and mediocre beer, Jester King appears to want to be in the vanguard … they may not have been the first, but they seem determined to jump into the lead.
So prosit to Jester King! I’m glad they’re here.