Beer Basics: Discover Saison

Have you ever encountered a saison that you've dismissed as too "saisony"? If you struggle with this style of beer, you're not alone – it can be tremendously complex, boasting characteristics of its unique peppery yeast strain alongside herbs, spices and other botanicals. But it's precisely for this reason that a saison makes such a dependable beer to grab in a 750ml bottle and enjoy with just about any dish and cuisine.

Saisons are farmhouse ales that can be traced back to Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. Translated from French, saison means ‘season’, referring to the time of year that it was brewed for the farmhands. Before refrigeration, beers were brewed in the cooler months (in this case, usually March) when fermentation temperatures could be kept constant. They were then enjoyed the following summer. The historical table versions of the style were lower in strength; today, stronger examples can be found with ABVs topping 9%.

The peppery characteristics of saisons are attributed to its unique strain of top-fermenting yeast, which is thought to be related to a red wine strain. Unlike ale yeast (saccharomyces cerevisiae, which ferments at 13°C) and lager yeast (saccharomyces pastorianus, which ferments at 4-7°C), the saison yeast strain prospers at a fermentation temperature of 32°C. As a consequence of this, the yeast produces a high level of phenols, responsible for its distinguishing pepperiness. Some esters can be present, which are the fruity notes often detected in ales, which usually have some citrus characteristics. Saisons are a highly attenuated style, meaning that the yeast has left very little sugar in the wort; this results in a discernible dryness on the palate.

The most famous version of a  saison is Saison DuPont from Brasserie Dupont, which has been brewed since 1844 as a farmhouse product, originally sold alongside artisanal foods such as honey. Today, you’ll find it available in any repiutable bottle shop (and for a reasonable price too). If you’re uncertain about the style generally, Saison DuPont is a great starting point.

When it comes to pairing with food, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more versatile style than saison. Honestly – this is where it really shines. Although it hails from Belgium, saisons have the perfect flavour profile to complement anything from Mexican to Thai dishes; its gentle phenolic spiciness – usually described as cracked black pepper – harmonises beautifully with fiery foods. Additions of herbs, such as coriander, marry effortlessly with fragrant dishes, while the effervescent carbonic bite scours away any rich textures, easily vanquishing greasy cheese or fatty meats. The food doesn’t need to be heavy, as crab cakes or Vietnamese summer rolls can happily pair with a Saison Dupont. Just ask Garret Oliver, who extols the virtues of these pairings in his food and beer bible, The Brewmaster’s Table:

Saison is not just versatile – it’s downright promiscuous. It seems to go with almost everything. The carbonation, right aromatics, spice flavours, peppery notes, dark earthy underpinnings, and racy acidity gives these beers a hook to hang their hat on for a wide range of dishes.
— Garret Oliver, p. 190.

When it comes to modern and local iterations of the style, you’ll struggle to find anything more thirst-quenching than East Sussex’s Burning Sky Brewery, whose Saison à la Provision is a refreshing take with additions of lactobacillus and brettonamyces for a crisp, dry and tart take. I’ve always been a fan of Bermondsey’s Brew by Numbers’ saisons as well, which are highly drinkable and can be deliciously adventurous – 01|27 comes to mind, a beetroot and fennel saison.

If you feel ambivalent about saison as a style, it’s worth picking up a bottle of Saison DuPont to pair with your next meal, especially if you’re partial to Thai or Vietnamese food. 

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Modern Saisons:

  • Saison à la Provision, Burning Sky Brewery (6.5%)
  • Any Brew by Numbers saison (ABV varies)

Classic Saisons:

  • Saison DuPoint, Brasserie DuPont (6.5%)

Try them with:

  • Vietnamese summer rolls with prawns, shredded vegetables, beansprouts, heaps of coriander and mint
  • Spicy Thai salad with shredded vegetables, chillies, coriander, cashew nuts and zesty lime and soya dressing
  • Spicy crab cakes

Darker Days IV: dark beers against a Burning Sky

For the fourth edition of Darker Days, beer writer Matthew Curtis teamed up with Sussex’s Burning Sky Brewery. Returning to The Duke’s Head in Highgate, four courses of food were served up alongside four exceptional examples of dark beers.

Dishes were prepared by the Duke’s pop-up resident kitchen, Zoe’s Ghana Kitchen, and included a range of moreish options, including okra fries, jollof spiced popcorn chicken and spicy vegan bean stew with plantain. A spotlight on dark beers is troublesome when it comes to food pairing – while roasted malty notes, charred meats and rich desserts are natural bedfellows, it’s a challenge to find four courses of complementary dishes for the style. But there was little emphasis on strict matching technique here, leaving attendees at liberty to graze on the small dishes as they appeared.

Darker Days Zoe's Ghana Kitchen

Matthew introduced the beers as they were circulated, inviting one of Burning Sky’s brewers, Tom Dobson, to comment on each one, extrapolating on the ingredients used and the ageing process. The structure of the event was kept friendly and casual, giving everyone the time to appreciate their beer while indulging in conversation with their neighbours.

Darker Days Matthew Curtis

Burning Sky is a brewery that relishes time, refusing to rush their meticulously crafted beers and producing some very exciting examples of barrel aged styles right here in the UK. Operating out of a refurbished farmhouse in the South Downs, the brewery takes inspiration from Belgian brewing traditions.

They were the first craft brewery in the country to use oak foudres and earlier this year, they installed one of Britain’s only coolships – a shallow vessel that cools down wort while exposing it to wild yeast and local bacteria. Spontaneous fermentation adds a host of complexity to beers, imparting sourness and funkiness to the final product. This is the method used in lambic beers, notably by the venerated Cantillon, a brewery based in Brussels that we visited earlier this year.

The beer list alone was worth the £30 ticket price, seeing a line-up of some challenging styles brewed and aged right here on our doorstep, including a mouth-watering Flanders Red on keg that would make the Belgians blush. Reminiscent of – and inspired by – Rodenbach Brewery's Grand Cru, it presented lip-puckering tartness balanced with a sweet malt bill. When stripped back, it also presented layers of wood and red berries from the slow barrel aging process.

Burning Sky Cherry Monolith

Despite being exceptional, the Flanders Red didn’t steal the show – the Cherry Monolith flowed from bottles and slipped down easily. Boozy dark chocolate mingled together with dark fruits and the subtle tang of cherries to be the epiphany of a liquid dessert. The finale was a Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout in bottle – this was a limited edition and these were the only bottles served in London – with intensely bitter roasted malt character and infused with rich flavours of bourbon.

Once again, The Duke’s Head proved the ideal venue for Darker Days, supplementing our menu of dark beers with some excellent palate cleansers on keg and cask. We were guided through our beers while enjoying the flavours of Ghana, but the casual nature of the event gave ticketholders the opportunity to discuss the beer and kick back. It was an warranted celebration of darker styles while highlighting some of the most complex and exciting beers coming out of the UK right now.

London Beer City 2017: going four years strong

This year saw the triumphant return of London Beer City, a 13 day event showcasing craft beer across the capital. Now in its fourth year, the itinerary was loaded with several concurrent happenings each day, making it impossible to do it all.

With some clever logistical planning, however, it was plausible to squeeze several events in on a single night. There were plenty of opportunities to get involved, even if you bypassed the three day long London Craft Beer Festival, one of the focal points of LBC. Other events that unfolded between 3 - 13 August included tap takeovers, food pairings and open brewery days. Some events were ticketed, but most weren't, making it easy for the tempted to show up and discover some of the best beer that London – and the UK – has to offer.

London Beer City opening party at Mason & Company in Hackney Wick.

London Beer City opening party at Mason & Company in Hackney Wick.

It all kicked off with the opening party on Thursday the 3rd August. Hosted at Mason & Company in Hackney Wick, a spirited crowd showed up to sample the special LBC beers for the first time in good company. The festival beers saw two groupings of breweries: The Five Points Brewing Company, Pressure Drop Brewing and One Mile End Brewery representing North London with Agadoo, a saison brewed with pineapple and northern hemisphere hops, and the South Pacific Pale from Fourpure Brewing Co, Brew by Numbers and Wimbledon Brewery brewed with southern hemisphere hops.

In addition to these, the beer list included some exemplary British beers worth working through, including 07/08, a strawberry wit from Brew by Numbers, Pale from Buxton Brewery and the intensely chewy Quebec Syrup Heist brown ale from Pressure Drop Brewing. A DJ ensured that music filled the air throughout the evening, contributing to the general buzz of excitement. 

A packed corner of The Duke's Head in Highgate, where Marble Brewery was showcased.

A packed corner of The Duke's Head in Highgate, where Marble Brewery was showcased.

The Duke’s Head in Highgate held a meet the brewer event on Wednesday the 9th August, with Manchester darlings Marble Brewery, who travelled down to London for a tutored tasting and tap takeover. Beer writer Matthew Curtis led the proceedings with support from the Marble team, including their head brewer JK (James Kemp). For a £10 ticket, guests were treated to an evening with four half pint samples of beers on cask and keg. The event was popular, selling out and seeing dozens of attendees squeezed into the back section of the cosy pub.

The story behind the recently resurrected Dobber IPA was relayed by Matthew, who helmed the campaign to have the beer reintroduced and helped brew the first batch himself. Trying it on cask and keg, opinions were divided on whether the cask or keg version was superior- while Matthew confessed to being more partial to the latter, our table thought that cask had the edge. The Marble team brought some special limited edition samples in tow, including some stunning barrel aged offerings, which were passed around for all to relish.

Tiny Rebel being bold at the Great British Beer Festival.

Tiny Rebel being bold at the Great British Beer Festival.

As a counterbalance to the London Craft Beer Festival, primarily showcasing keg beers, the Great British Beer Festival (GBBF) is a celebration of cask. Britain’s largest cask ale event has been running for 40 years and brought in droves of drinkers to Olympia in Kensington from Tuesday the 8th - Saturday the 12th August. The best of the UK was represented alongside examples from the US and further afield. The scale of this festival is absolutely immense, with a sprawl of booths serving up extensive menus, broken up by region or country. Some breweries splashed out on their own stand, such as Cardiff’s Tiny Rebel Brewing Company, who were also offering a small keg selection to eagle-eyed customers.

Great British Beer Festival Harvey's Brewery

Harvey's Brewery from Lewes proved very popular, dispensing several ales to a thirsty crowd, including the mighty Prince of Denmark imperial stout with rich notes of chocolate and liquorice. The collaboration beer with Burning Sky Brewery, Anglezarke IPA, had generated enough of a buzz that punters were immediately notified of the precise time that it would be put on.

The crowd at GBBF is diverse in terms of age, seeing groups of younger drinkers jostling with older drinkers, and the atmosphere is a bit confused. But given the sheer size of the event, it's no wonder that it feels as if it would be impossible to cover it all in a single session and it felt slightly disorganised.

The Tottenham tasting session at the London Beer City closing party.

The Tottenham tasting session at the London Beer City closing party.

London Beer City concluded with an eventful closing party on Saturday the 12th August at the Five Points Brewing Co's warehouse yard in Hackney. London breweries were featured and their beers served across three bars with tutored tastings sessions offered; sessions were broken down into three of the capital's beery neighbourhood hotspots: Bermondsey, Hackney and Tottenham. Brewers and representatives of the featured breweries guided small groups through one of their beers each, giving tasters insight into the beer and some tasting notes.

Just as it began, LBC finished with a cheery crowd of drinkers who demonstrated healthy enthusiasm about great beer. The size of the crowds at many events were indicative of how the interest in craft beer has growth in London – and that it's becoming increasingly accessible to a larger segment of the population. The ethos of LBC is, after all, to encourage everyone to appreciate small beer and champion independent breweries. After four years, it's certainly continuing to achieve just this.