Starr, With Two Rs
The Starr Hill Brewery of Charlottesville never crossed my radar, but in the grocery store they stood out on the shelf. The craft beer section in the Shenandoah valley was actually dominated by western brewers like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium. The Starr Saison has a honey sweet scent and tastes lightly spiced and herbal. The finish has a twinge of metal, but I’ll blame that on the Safeway.
Grapes and Must
Dogfish Head’s Noble Rot is a weird saison. Brewed with Viognier grape must, this beer sounded like a strange hybrid, but Noble Rot is surprising in it’s simplicity. The nose has only a hint of fresh grapes and sparkling wine. The body is super crisp with hints of wheat. The middle is peppery and grassy, and the the finish is grapy. Something about Noble Rot is perfect for spring cleaning. It’s musty like dust and forgotten clothes from the back of the closet.
Fleur de Ferme is a fall seasonal saison from The Commons Brewery brewed with chamomile, hibiscus and lavender — all Sarah’s favorites. It’s a surprisingly dark beer with a coffee-like, nutty finish. The floral scent on the nose combines with a Belgian yeast strain in the middle with a sort of peppery flavor. The flowers stick with you in the aftertaste. An herbaceous brew, Fleur de Ferme might make more sense as a blonde, but there is something to be said for combining unexpected light and dark flavors.
Boulevard’s Tank 7 is a fairly run of the mill Belgian style farmhouse ale. It starts with some fruit — grapefruit mostly — and ends with spice and a hint of musk. It’s a tasty beer that fits the style nicely, without blowing my mind or adding anything particularly out of place, balanced.
Like I said Monday, I haven’t had many Boulevard beers, but I figure the place to start is the Smokestack series of corked and caged beers. On a warm, Spring-like day, there is nothing quite like popping a cork and enjoying the cool breeze.
I love saison style ales. I love them, and for a long time I didn’t know why. We can break it all down and say it’s brettanomyces yeast or lactobacillius bacteria, but saison is more than that. Saison is about going back to the very roots of beer. It’s a peasant beer, the peoples’ beer.
In the beginning, beer was made in the home just like bread and butter. Farmers used whatever ingredients they had on hand — barley, hops, spices, herbs, whatever works. No one knew what was in a yeast slurry, they just knew it made beer into beer. The yeast flora wasn’t pieced apart until Pasteur studied beer under a microscope in the middle of the nineteenth century. Home brewers just used the yeast they had, and if it didn’t ferment fast enough, they borrowed some from a neighbor. The mixed yeast strains produce all sorts of esters and a complex bouquet of flavors.
Logsdon’s Seizoen follows the farmhouse tradition using a mixture of different yeasts and pear juice to referment in the bottle, leading to some intense carbonation. The results are floral, funky and dirty, tart, and crisp. Full of flavor but dry and easy drinking.
The Commons Brewery’s Urban Farmhouse Ale claims follow the Belgian Saison tradition. Farmhouse ales were brewed to keep farmhands quenched during harvest season. Saisons are light, crisp, and refreshing. Urban Farmhouse is light, crisp, and quaffable. Belgian spices meet a hint of tartness. It’s a bit oily on the tongue but clean. I could easily drink a full bottle. It’s refreshing, but Urban Farmhouse may be a little boring.
Through the front door, past the empty offices and the closed up cafe, take the elevator to the basement and follow your nose around the corner and down the hall. You’ll see tons of stainless steel equipment and barrels lining the walls. Don’t worry, you’re in the right place. Take a left and you’ll find the Upright Brewing tasting room, nine taps protrude from the wall next to a menu of five regular beers and a few seasonal trends. That’s it.
The Upright tasting room is the closest you can get to a brewery without mashing grains yourself. We sat next to barrels of Fantasia fermenting away. We took a self guided tour of mashing tuns and cylindroconical fermentation vessels. Sarah pointed out the open top fermenters in the only room you can’t explore. And we drank beers.
I started out with the fresh hop bitter, Kiln ‘Em All. Delicious nutty, malty back bone and a hint of fresh greenness and fruit. The hops are probably more subdued a few weeks later, but delicious. I could definitely have a few pints.
Sarah had the Saison Rahsaan. It’s a deep brown saison that drinks really light. There is no coffee, no chocolate, no roast. It’s yeasty, like fresh, rising bread. Malty but not sweet.
I also tried the Bird Call Brown because I am on a brown binge. A hint of coffee and English hops. Sarah is really starting to figure out that she hates American hops. She can actually stomach more European style hopping. Bird Call is sessionable, but full flavored.
Sarah also tried the hopless Gruit. Gruit is an ancient style of beer from the low countries brewed during the middle ages before hops from England and Germany became standard. Gruit is bittered only with spices and herbs. There is a hint of lavender and lemongrass and tons of coriander. Imagine a Belgian wit without any hops. Sarah got some orange peel. She is getting good at this. Barring Cantillon, Gruit may be the best beer Sarah has ever tasted.
At the end I went back to my favorite, the Five. Imagine a saison, now add an IPA. It’s like that. Fresh, crisp flavors and bright, citrusy and earthy hops. Definitely worth ten bucks for seventy-five centiliters. I could definitely drink a full bottle over dinner.
Upright Brewing may be the brewery closest to Brasserie Cantillon I’ve seen. Laid back, industrial, comfortable. I can definitely see coming back for more every weekend.
Brasserie Dupont makes one of the most revered saisons in the world. For good reason. This is a great beer; it’s citric and spicy. Oranges and lemons mingle with coriander and peppercorns fill the mouth and disappear as soon as you swallow. It’s super crisp but still full and bold. The hop bitterness is gentle and there is no risidual sweetness. The taste is a bit twiggy with a twinge of tart acid. Sarah didn’t even turn up her nose at it.
Upright Brewing makes some great saison style beers. They’re fresh from the Belgian farmhouse, in a basement on Portland’s east side. Flora Rustica is a great example of Upright’s commitment to older Belgian style ales, an ale brewed with flowers. In the kettle they added calendula and yarrow, the same as the Belgians used to do before hops took over. Flora Rustica is a super, super floral beer. The nose explodes with roses and apple blossoms; it smells purple because I say so. The smell is powerful yet delicate. The taste is full, but refreshing, more Spring than Autumn. There is a hint of bitterness and a dry finish. Sarah is actually playing along lately. At Deschutes she had an entire Bier De Garde, a small glass.
I picked up Hillard’s Saison on a whim at Chuck’s Hop Shop in Seattle. I just love the can style, so simple and pretty. The can exploded when I tried to open it. Lots of carbonation lost, but it was fluffy for a while. The smell reminds me of a nice Belgian blonde or wit. I got lots of lemon and yeast — like fresh bread. The lemon came through nicely on the tongue with a bitter, yeasty finish. A bit full for the style, not as light or crisp as you would expect from a saison, but solid and flavorful. A bit sweet in the middle — like cane sugar, and herbs — coriander and nutmeg. Overall a nice, clean beer in a sleek, clean package.