Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review - The Saison, Beer of the Farm Labourer

The saison is a beer I have little experience with, but the more I learn about it the more interested I become. It was traditionally brewed in farmhouses in the French-speaking region of Belgium for farm workers bringing in the harvest. It was made in the cooler months, and thus had to be sturdy enough to last through the summer, but refreshing enough to quench the thirst of the labourers. Beers that combine elements of both ales and lagers are a particular interest of mine and its mix of both the robust and the refreshing reminds me of steam beer and my own Overcast Island Ale. In this post I'll be reviewing three very different saisons: the Saison de Dottignies from the Brouwerij De Ranke in Belgium, The Saison du Buff, a collaborative effort of three American breweries, and Victoria's own Deckhand, from Lighthouse Brewing.

Saison de Dottignies - 5.5%
The Saison de Dottignies from the Belgian Brouwerij De Ranke is an intriguing beer. It is produced by two passionate home brewers in West Flanders, Nino Bacelle and Guido Devos. For a few hours every Friday and Saturday they take control of a local brewery and produce what many consider some of the finest beers in Belgium. Saison de Dottignies pours a deep golden, nearly orange hue, and has a pleasing bouquet of noble hops, possibly Saaz. It is refreshing and crisp, with a pleasant dry finish that is slightly bitter. It could almost be a pilsner but for the light character of Belgium yeast that just shows up on the palette. This beer is incredibly refreshing, but never boring, which is a difficult line to walk indeed, I can only imagine a farm hand's satisfaction at downing their first pint of such a brew after a hard day in the field. This beer has a delicate and yet captivating flavour whose memory, more than almost any other I can remember, has stayed with me long after the glass was empty. It is not cheap, at nearly $5 for a standard sized small bottle, but is well worth the expenditure. In Victoria it is available only at Cook Street Village Liquor.
Rating: Excellent

Saison du Buff - 6.8%
The Saison du Buff is a collaborative effort between three fine US breweries: Dogfish Head, Victory, and Stone. The Buff in the name stands for Brewers United for Freedom of Flavour, an organisation formed by the three brewery's owners "with the goal to highlight the uniqueness, passion, and camraderie of America's craft brewers." Despite this beer's pedigree I was pretty skeptical going in as it is a most unconventional beer that is brewed with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. However, this turned out to be one of the most surprising and fascinating beers I've had in a long time. The Saison du Buff is a pale, cloudy gold with a nice head of fine bubbles and has a very light fruity aroma. As expected it has an unorthodox taste with flavours of aniseed and mint, but these flavours do not overpower but blend subtly with light fruit and spice from the Belgian yeast. It is quite effervescent, with a dry and spicy finish, and is incredibly drinkable, reshreshing, and above all fascinating. I brought this beer back from a recent trip to the States and am not aware of any local outlets selling it, but if you do see it, buy it. You will not be disappointed.
Rating: Excellent

Deckhand Belgian Saison - 8%
This beer is the third in Lighthouse's "Small Brewery - Big Flavour" series. I was skeptical about this beer as the first in the series, Shipwrecked, a so-called "Triple" IPA, was only a shade above undrinkable, a 10% abv beer absolutely dominated by the taste of alcohol. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised as this turned out to be one of my favourite offerings produced by Lighthouse in some time. In the glass Deckhand is golden and lightly cloudy with a faint aroma of Belgian yeast. The flavour has elements of fruit and spice with emphasis on the fruit, but this is not overpowering. It is refreshing, as a saison should be, and does not have the strong flavour of bubblegum that plagues many North American produced Belgian beers. It is quite effervescent and has a medium to light body with a mild alcohol taste on the finish, but otherwise it finishes well with fruit and spice. Deckhand lacks the subtle complexity of the Saison de Dottignies and the Saison du Buff, but this is somewhat of an unfair comparison as these were two of the best beers I have tried in a long time, and the first ones to which I have given a rating of excellent. Deckhand is a great local example of a saison and is interesting as well as drinkable, especially considering it is 8% abv. It is also fairly affordable being available at most local liquor outlets for less than $7 for a 650ml longneck. If you have any interest in this style I recommend you give Deckhand a try.
Rating: Very Good

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