04/22/10

When Two Rights Make a Wrong: Flavored Saisons

Long time no see loyal reader. I’d like to try and get some momentum going again on the blog and shake out some of my blogging cobwebs before starting on another project, blogging on Boston area restaurants with some friends of mine. So here’s what’s been on my mind lately in the world of beer.

People who know me know that Saison is one of my favorite styles; an odd outlier in my repertoir of heavy, dark, roasty, thick-enough-to-chew favorites. Something about it just works. It’s crisp and light – or more accurately it’s percieved as light because it’s dry and usually a bit heavily carbonated. Like most Belgian styles, Saisons generally feature a complex yeast profile from the use of special yeast and generally warmer fermentation temperatures, which kicks up the fruity ester character, and sometimes adds a spicy phenol touch.

But more to the point, they are a relatively delicate beer, which further accentuates the yeast characters. Based on White Labs’ yeast profiles and the BJCP style guidelines, the attenuation of, say, a British style Pale Ale is something on the order of 70-75%, whereas a Saison tends more toward the neighborhood of 85-90%. This means more sugar is removed during fermentation and the result has a very light malt character that isn’t overwhelming. Then the hop character has to be restrained accordingly to keep the beer in balance (especially since the Belgians don’t really seem to care for hops anyway, they are known for aging their hops to remove the bittering and flavor characteristics before use-which I think I wrote about but was apparently never posted. We’ve got some catching up to do…) BJCP guidelines put the Saison at 20-35 IBUs (a measure of hop bitterness) whereas a Pale would be more like 30-50 IBUs. We’ve also talked about the BU:GU ratio before, which is a way to measure the balance of a beer based on the IBUs and the original gravity. Higher numbers are more bitter, lower numbers less. On this measure, Saison comes in around 0.4-0.5, and a Pale is more like 0.6-0.8.

So, science aside, what we’re talking about here is a relatively light, malty beer with a delicate flavor that allows the complexity of the malt and yeast character to really shine. And Saisons happen to be one of this beer snob’s favorite summertime options, not to mention a perfect stand-in for white wine or champagne with food, any time of year. For my favorite examples, see Brooklyn One (didn’t care for Brooklyn Two as much) or the classic Saison DuPont from Brasserie DuPont in Belgium. Other good examples include Southampton Saison, Victory Saison and Ommegang Hennepin.

CBC has a new(ish) beer on tap called Sgt Pepper, which is a peppercorn flavored Saison. I say newish because it’s been brewed in past seasons, and also because, well, I haven’t posted in a while. Since I love Saison, and I love peppercorns (mmm…Steak au Poivre…) you’d think I’d be all over this one. And every year I think the same thing, and every year…I’m wrong.

See, you try to take in the bouquet on this one and you sneeze. It’s just way too much peppercorn for a saison in my opinion. The Punks have a long standing bias against flavored Saisons for this reason, no matter what you put in them the flavor seems to overpower that delicate malt and yeast character which is the hallmark of the style. I thought we were alone on this one, and I don’t mean to second guess some of my favorite brewers here, but anecdotal evidence from my friends bears out that this one isn’t for everyone. Taste it before you get a full one.

There is one more thing to keep in mind here. Several of my beer and brewing gurus (see Charlie Papazian, or Stan Hieronymus) are quick to decry the practice of beer snobs like me judging a beer against style guidelines. That’s important for competition, but flavored beers are, by necessity, kind of unique beasts. This is why they created specialty categories at beer competitions to begin with; to encourage creative brewing rather than stifle it. So please, do try it, you might like it. Just do so with caution. And maybe don’t breathe too deep on that first sip.

07/20/09

A Seattle Beer-venture

On a recent visit to Seattle I took it upon myself to visit as many local breweries as possible within a single day. I was not happy about the time constraint, but due to scheduling issues it was all I could muster up. I eventually dubbed this mission my ‘Seattle Beer-venture’ (I think this was after beer 10 or 15). Thanks to readers’ recommendations and my own internet search skills, I started the day with a list of seven brewers. My cousin, who lives in Redmond, was not only an eager volunteer, but agreed to drive; a massive problem solved! It was around 11:30AM when we decided to shove off, with the first stop being Elysian Brewing Company for some beer and lunch.

Elysian Brewing Company: Located toward the far end of Pike Street away from the famous Pike Market, Elysian occupies a large concrete corner building clearly displaying the company’s insignias. The inside is separated into a restaurant/bar on one half with the brewery taking up the rest of the room, visible through clear glass windows. The food menu was pretty robust with several decent selections. But that wasn’t why I was there. As you would expect of most brew pubs the beer menu rotates, and the day I was there they had at least seven selections (I say seven because that’s how many I actually tried and I am sure there were more). They also have two sampler options the first of which is called the Elysian Sampler that includes their ESB, IPA, Porter, Pilsner, and Jasmine IPA. The other choice is the Bartender’s Sampler, and is akin an omakase of tastings, meaning the bartender selects what he believes to be the best choices during that season or day. I of course went with the Bartender’s Sampler. For me the sampler included the Loser Pale Ale, Saison Poivre, Son of Bete Blanche, Bifrost Winter Ale, and Hydra Hefeweizen. In addition I ordered taster size portions of the Perseus Porter and Dragonstooth Stout. Barring only a few exceptions, I really enjoyed my choices at Elysian. I rather enjoyed the Loser Pale Ale and the Dragonstooth Stout, while I found the Saison Poivre and the Hydra Hefwezein somewhat disappointing.

I found the Loser Pale Ale to have a bit of a hoppy/sweet nose with a light body, balanced flavor, and a clean finish. Pale Ales are not amongst my favorite category of beer, but if they were this one would definitely be a winner. I also believe this beer is a one-off production from the company, so get it while you can.

If you like-I mean really like-peppercorn then the Saison Poivre is for you. However, when I think peppercorn I can’t help but think of my perennial favorite Route Des Épices by Dieu Du Ciel in Montreal; Elysian’s Saison Poivre just can’t compare. The delicacy of the saison style just couldn’t hold up to the peppercorn; it works much better against the rye background chosen by Dieu Du Ciel. A more subtle application of the peppercorn would have been better received.

Like the search for the great American novel, the Punks have been on the lookout for the great American hefeweizen, but the white whale still eludes us. As a hefe fan I had high hopes for the Hydra Hefeweizen, but found the taste of banana to be somewhat overpowering leading to a slightly unbalanced beer. Schneider and Ayinger still make my favorite hefes.

The Dragontooth’s Stout had a great roasty and chocolaty nose, a smooth body, flavor punctuated with hints of chocolate and hops, and a slightly bitter and malty finish. My cousin commented that it would be a great burger beer, and I don’t disagree.

 

Fremont Brewing Company: After finishing up lunch we decided to head over to the Fremont Brewing Company. Now here’s the thing about this place, when I was doing my research I couldn’t figure out if they were actually selling beer yet. According to the internet, they were incredibly new and still in the midst of starting up, but we decided to take our chances. This risk paid off. We pull around an unassuming corner in a commercial/industrial neighborhood, and I get a quick glimpse through and open garage door of what appears to be a mountain of kegs and brewing equipment. We quickly parked and headed in. Once inside I was greeted by a somewhat bewildered and very busy staff. I introduced myself, and to my surprise they not only seemed happy for the intrusion, but eager to tell their story. I began speaking to Matt and Kemp, who to my surprise turned out to be the owners of the Fremont Brewing Company. I must admit anyone displaying this much enthusiasm toward the art is sure to succeed. I really appreciate the time these guys gave me as they were just about ready to finish up a big batch of their Universe Pale Ale.

Despite the fact they clearly weren’t quite ready to receive guests, I was still able to obtain a growler of their Universe Pale Ale, and even taste a sample of green beer right from the fermenter. It was a very pleasant beer, and I envy those people in Fremont who will be able to walk over to refill their growlers at anytime.

In addition to the Universe Pale Ale, Fremont will be offering an Interurban India Pale Ale, named after a nearby statue. Another aspect of this brewer I shouldn’t fail to mention is the fact that they try to utilize as many locally grown and organic ingredients as they can in a sustainable way. They will also soon open a tasting room on the second floor of their brewery with great views of Seattle and Mount Rainier; I recommend visiting if you are in the area. Fremont’s beer will be sold in kegs, cans, and growlers.

Hale’s Ales: Prior to leaving Fremont Brewing, Matt and Kemp, knowing my intentions for the day, suggested I try Hale’s Ales right down the block. How could I say no? Hale’s Ales is located between the Fremont and Ballard districts of Seattle in a large industrial/commercial area.
The building itself is spacious and contains both a brewpub and brewery serving a full menu of food. As you can tell by the name Hale’s Ales specializes in English style ales, and claim to have produced the first nitrogen conditioned ale in the US.

On that note the Hale’s Cream Ale was exceptional, and a must have if you visit. The bar staff seemed somewhat cold, but very knowledgeable. When I visited there were over 15 beers on tap organized by light, hoppy, malty, and dark. Unfortunately, being overwhelmed by the vast selection of beers, and realizing how many brewers I had left to visit, I was only able to sample four beers; the Troll Porter, Imperial Stout, Hale Cream Stout, and the El Jefe Hefeweizen. The Cream Stout was far and away the best beer of this selection, teetering on a 5 out of 5 on the Trappist Punk’s beer scale. My second favorite was the troll porter, while the El Jefe Hefeweizen was my least favorite.

Georgetown Brewing Company: Next we made our way over to the south side of Seattle and visited the Georgetown Brewery. Let me start off by saying this was without question was my favorite stop of the day. Nestled in an old refurbished industrial complex, the Georgetown Brewery served one of the best and most consistent lineups of beers I have ever tasted. The store itself is a small room in the brewery, which sells various logoed paraphernalia, and of course beer. They also offer free tastings.

The first beer I tasted was called Lisa’s Chocolate Stout, named after the brewer’s retail manager. It was fantastic. Quite possibly the best chocolate stout this mouth has ever tasted. Sadly, this beer was made for a special event, and despite being named after the retail manager, is not being sold. In fact, you can’t even purchase growlers from their store front; it is for tasting only, so get there quick! I was also told they use organic chocolate from Theo Chocolate in the brewing process. After tasting this masterpiece I had to try more.

Next on the agenda was the Nine Pound Porter, named after a neighborhood bar. Like the stout, this was another amazing beer. In a nutshell, it had a sweet nose, nice malty character, and an excellent finish. At this point I had to ask, “How can I get your beer in NY or Boston?” The answer, “You can’t…” At the moment Georgetown’s brews can only be found in Washington and Idaho, and maybe soon in Oregon. The owners are fearful of over expansion as they do not want to compromise the quality of their amazing beer; I can respect that, but wish I didn’t have to go all the way back to Seattle to refill that growler!

Finally, I tasted Manny’s Pale Ale and Chopper’s Ale and both were winners. The bottom line here is if you are in Seattle and looking for good beer you must go and seek out Georgetown Brewery…

The Pike Pub & Brewery: Next we made our way to The Pike Brewery located in downtown Seattle, very close to the famous Pike’s Market. I feared this brewpub would turn out to be nothing more than a glorified T.G.I. Friday’s, given its location near a tourist mecca. But, ever seeking diamonds in the rough, I had to give it a shot.

In the end though my hunch was correct. I had the beer sampler, consisting of a multitude of beers ranging from mediocre to bad, with the Kilt Lifter being the only exception. I sadly left the bulk of it behind; as I knew I had at least one more stop ahead and didn’t want to fill myself up with low quality beer. If you are in this neighborhood and are looking for a good beer, then I recommend going up the street a ways and finding the Elysian Brewing Company, you won’t be disappointed.

Black Raven (Redmond, WA): For the last stop of the day we found the relatively new Black Raven Brewery in Redmond Washington. The brewery was located on the outskirts of the city in an office/industrial complex. Redmonders and those who work for Microsoft can rejoice in the fact that within their midst has sprung up a superb brewery with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff. According to my notes, and after several beers, I coined the Black Raven as “The Pride of Redmond”. It was clear from the moment I walked through the door that these guys knew beer; the beer list read was as large and varied as one would expect from any high-end European or American craft-brewer. Nor was the quantity out step with the quality.

I was even slightly astonished to discover that I thoroughly enjoyed their hefeweizen and Kristale Wheat (actually a kristallweizen; all of their core products are name after ravens from literature and folklore) , despite my bias against American hefes. Other notable beers included the Morrighan Stout and La Petite Morte. If you are in the Redmond area and in search of some excellent locally made craft beers, then look no further and head to The Black Raven immediately.