When I was writing a piece on Wallonian saisons last year I asked Garrett Oliver what his interpretation of a saison was, given that in his magnificent Brewmaster’s Table (in my eyes one of the best beer books ever written) he had note-checked the beer as the one style he could drink every day.
He came back with the words: ‘In my mind, there are really only a few things truly required of a saison. It must be dry – residual sugar would have a considerable effect on the beer’s ability to keep through the summer. They should also be fairly hoppy. Moderate alcohol, 5- 7%, would make them strong enough to last for a while, but not so strong that they’d stun the farm workers who drank it. So perhaps it is not a style that lends itself to orthodoxy, but rather one that originally existed to answer a question – “what can I brew that’s nutritious, refreshing, tasty, and will last for at least a year in the cellar?”’
So in other words, every man his own brewery makes his own saison. Which is a roundabout way of leading me to Sharps’ colossus of a head brewer Stuart Howe, who is currently ploughing his way through a series of 52 beers. When he asked for suggestions of what to do I said why not do a dark saison, given that most variations of the style I have seen were blonde or even a dirty yellow (with his penchant of thinking outside the box Blumenthal-style I almost suggested a bacon and egg rauchbier but sadly thought I would sound too frivolous). A dark saison I had not seen, but referring back to Oliver’s quote there is nowhere that it says that a saison cannot be dark (I bet Dany at Fantome has done one) and so Howe took the challenge and last week he sent me a couple of bottles. He has succeeded admirably.
‘I really like the beer that has come out,’ he told me, ‘if I was marking it according to closeness to style I wouldn’t be able to rate it very highly as it is a big beer and not particularly dry but it really is lovely and quite unusual. As for strength, it has galloped up to 7.8% in the bottle.’
I tried one the other night and found myself loving it. It was the colour of an ancient oak sideboard some great aunt has seen fit to leave to you on her demise, even though you only met her twice. Juicy fruit gums and a sweet stewed potage of fruit dominate the nose. It’s a big mouthful and there is the flinty, chalky character of saison, joined by an oddball fruitiness that veers towards booze soaked currants; it has that historic edge of a saison, a peppery peripatetic edge that makes me think of Wallonia, yet look at the colour. On the other hand is there anything that says a saison has to be a certain colour? From where I stand saison a moveable feast; sure the Howe’s is a cleaned-up version, lacking the funk and junk of something like Saison d’Epeautre from Blaugies (pictured), but it’s still a delectable beer that I would love to see out in the wider world. I’ve one bottle left and fancy pouring it out alongside a massive pasty from the baker’s up the road. Now would be heaven.