I've posted about a couple of personal verticals here already. Last year, in the former Beer Bar Band backyard, I attempted to understand the abundant presence of Dry Lagers with a vertical tasting. Also, on Christmas Day we sampled 3 different vintages of the Red Hill Christmas Ale. The insight provided by a vertical tasting can really help you decipher quality and individuality. (One day I'll finally get around to doing that VB/Melbourne Bitter/Carlton Draught/Crown Lager vertical tasting...)
Recently we lined up some Saisons over dinner on a fine summer's evening, out on our deck at home. Dinner added to the theme of the night. Jenn cooked a Saison fish pie via Paul Mercurio's Cooking With Beer book. I'll leave her to fill you in on the delicious beery food...so watch out for the blog post on Soaked in Beer!
Saison is a beer style that I've become quite fond of over the last year, as I’ve experienced more and more versions. This may actually be perfect timing too. Indications from the local craft brewing industry point to a number of new saisons hitting the beer taps this year. 2011’s trend was clearly Black IPAs. Now, 2012 may just be the year of the Saison for Australian craft beer!
There's already a small but stellar local range of the style - Moo Brew's MONA Saison deMoo, Beard and Brau Bon Chiens Farmhouse ale, the retired Feral Saison and the recently returned Temple Brewing Saison (which should back in bottles soon). Joining the farmhouse fold this year will be Mornington Peninsula Brewery, Mountain Goat and the possible limited return of Matilda Bay Brewey's Barking Duck saison.
These fruity, full bodied (usually) pale ales are a fine juxtaposition of a complex yet simple drinking beer. The style’s origins lie in the refreshing summer ales, often with low-alcohol content, brewed for the French farm labours. These days saisons tend to be much bigger and bolder, with full bodies and an alcohol content of between 6-8% abv, yet they still retain their easy drinking and seasonable character.
For our first little Saison vertical test we selected:
- an international benchmark - Saison Dupont (Belgium, 6.5% abv)
- a highly regarding Australian version from Bridge Road Brewers, Chevalier Saison (Victoria, 6% abv)
- and a new kid on the block – La Sirène Saison (Victoria, 6.5% abv)
These three saisons all proved to be quite different yet still provided the similar drinking experience of a classic Saison.
None were exactly alike in appearance. La Sirène was light and cloudy with a relatively small head. Its head did have the best retention of the three, but left little lacing. The Bridge Road was clear and bright with a decent head and good lacing. The Saison Dupot was a deep cloudy orange with the biggest head of the three and left much pretty lacing.
The aroma proved to be the most similar characteristic across these three beers - full and dense orangey fruity nose, sweet and spicy notes with the familiar saison yeast element.
Mouthfeel varied across the three from full bodied (Saison Dupont) to medium (Bridge Road) to a little light-on for a saison (La Sirène). Carbonation was highest in the local beers, possible because the Dupont was older from traveling further since it was brewed. Hence, Bridge Road and La Sirène were also the more vibrant beers. The overall balance was best in the Bridge Road and Dupont versions. La Sirène was just a little too thin for me. The complexity and depth of Dupont highlights its internationally renowned status.
La Sirène performed best with its refreshing clean and dry finish that had the nicest little hit of tartness out of the three. Although, it was the Bridge Road and Dupont saisons that I found moreish.
All truly excellent and enjoyable beers in their own right. For me, the Bridge Road Brewers Chevalier Saison hit the spot just right on this occasion and "won" this vertical session.
Ben Kraus of Bridge Road Brewers has a solid history producing excellent saisons with a twist. In the last few years he has produced the Saison le Printemps, brewed with blueberries and elderflower, and the awesome Saison Noir (black saison) that celebrated the brewery's 6th anniversary in 2011. However, his regular Saison from the Bridge Road Chevalier range remains a consistent standout as an Australian interpretation of the style.
A week or so later we went vertical with the latest Ben Kraus Saison-with-a-twist. It was also our first side-by-side test of the same beer that has been brewed in two different locations – the excellent NøgneØ and Bridge Road Brewers collaboration ale, India Saison, a hybrid style mash resulting in a hoppy Saison.
In August last year Ben Kraus travelled to Norway, along with some of his favourite local hop varieties. In collaboration he brewed this beer with Kjetil Jikiun at the NøgneØ brewery, which was then packaged in the standard 500ml NøgneØ bottles and eventually imported into Australia through Phoenix Beers. Back in Australia, Ben also brewed India Saison at his brewery in Beechworth using exactly the same recipe, providing two versions for the market.
News of this collaboration was very exciting for me, as a big fan of both breweries. Many of Ben's Bridge Road Brewers beers have provided much "wow" factor in recent times, through his innovative brewing - B2 Bomber, 500 Smokey Breakfast Lager, Galaxy Single Hop IPA, Stellar Single Hop IPA and more! NøgneØ is also a sensation, filling many spots of my all-time list of favourite beers: Imperial Stout, God Jul plus the incredible trilogy of Dark Horizon, Red Horizon and Sweet Horizon.
India Saison is a brilliant beer. Packed with the robust Australian Galaxy and Stella hop varieties, it is a well balanced blend of two interesting beer styles - Saison and IPA. There are many "crazy" inventive craft beers around these days. Whilst innovative, this beer is far from crazy. India Saison is a bold and characterful beer, yet also elegant and easy to drink. The complexity isn't as evident at first as in some other hybrid craft beer styles, but a few mouthfuls in you will discover much to explore in this beer's taste and character.
Clearly the same beer, there were also some strikingly significant differences between the Australian and Norway brewed versions. Firstly, the aroma of both was upfront resiny hoppy yet underneath was a classic spicy Saison nose. However, the hoppy aroma was much bigger and beautiful on the Bridge Road edition. Although, having traveled from the other side of the world, the hops in the NøgneØ bottle may have just died off a little. Understandable.
The biggest difference was in appearance. The NøgneØ brewed addition had a much deeper orange colour with a thicker head, whilst the local Bridge Road brew was a brighter orange with a less dense head.
Both versions were practically identical in mouthfeel, finish and overall drinkability.
So, why are the two beers so different when both have been brewed with exactly the same recipe? The simple and short answer, to the best of my basic knowledge, is water and brewhouse plus freshness. Sure, there are a number of other tiny intricacies that will alter the final result in very small ways, but the significant differences will most likely come from:
- two very different water sources, with large variations in the mineral content and ph levels between the Aussie and Norway water supplies,
- the larger size and environment of the relatively new NøgneØ brewhouse compared to the smaller Beechworth brewhouse build in an old Coach House,
- the NøgneØ version has travelled from across the other side of the world, compared to the relatively fresh recently brewed Bridge Road version from only a few hundred kms away. Therefore it is older and has been exposed to more variations in light and temperature.