Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Conundrum saisonale

           in the run up to Christmas I was asking Davefromtshop what delights he had for me to buy. Knowing I was a fan of the style he told me about the Fantome Saison. Apparently it was considered a classic, and had orgasmic and worshipful rave reviews on Ratebeer, which comes as a surprise what with reviewers on there being so shy of scaturient outpourings....
Then came the caveats. I listened carefully. Reviewers had almost unanimously noted it smelled really unpleasant (but tasted nothing like its aroma). Also, it was strong, and heart-stoppingly expensive.

Despite these warnings, I decided to buy a bottle, since I got the feeling it was a bit of a coup for The Archer Road Beer Stop (where I used to work, and whose owner I am a good friend of, just to provide full disclosure!) to stock it. I bought two of this enormous bottle of 8.0% beer, and tonight I'm tasting one.

The first surprise comes from the fact that on opening the cap there's a cork underneath. What is this, radioactive material! How likely is it that the contents will escape? Once I got the cork out, with a satisfying pop, I got to encounter the aroma, or, erm, smell, for myself. Hmmm. Its not foul but its a bit vegetably and tart and reminds me in some ways of compost, or more worryingly, off beer. Luckily the taste is unrelated to the above description. However, the taste is my next screwed up face making puzzle....
I should point out that I'm drinking this as I write. Its almost less hassle than making notes and then typing them up, and also stops me from constantly taking photos. My gut reaction is that I think the taste is the beers most surprising element - and I'm not sure if I think that's a good thing.
One thing's for certain - this is a strong beer and it needs to be chilled. Carbonation and sharp flavours and that lovely Belgian yeast don't need to be served at room temperature. As I have a lovely Orval glass, at least half the bottle is back in the fridge. I suspect that may restrain the flavours slightly so they meld seamlessly together. At the moment I am drinking three beers in one. Its a very confusing experience for my palate.
The first hit is yeast. Its that recognisable sweetish Belgian affair that really should be in a saison. Then there is orange, and bitterness, almost like a Fullers Vintage Ale. Its not terribly easy to drink either, but its 8% and not cold. I don't think its trying to ape the refreshingly light farmhouse style that I seem to lean towards, but equally I'm not sure what its trying to be.
The other element in here is a sweet and sour battle between barley sugar and astringent almost bitter fruit flavours. In one mouthful it goes Corsendonk Pater (note have not had this in years, this is an unreliable taste memory), gueze, Buxton Rye and an aftertaste of orange boiled sweets and the Popperings Hommelbier. To be honest, it could be described as fruit salad sweets, Kriek, Magic Rock High Wire, Marmite and Gulden Draak. That's far less accurate and a bit silly, but it performs the task of bamboozling your expectations and (on drinking), your taste-buds in a similar way. Why won't you make sense unusual saison thing!
I've took the glass out of the freezer now and poured slightly more chilled beer into it, and noted that the list of ingredients includes spices. Not which ones of course, that wouldn't be sufficiently "artisanal", but maybe there could be a clue in there? Other than that, the temperature exercise has achieved nothing. Where Urthel Saisonnaire and Saison Dupont have a refreshing lemony edge, this has a slightly jarring sour bitterness, more like earthy lime than zesty lemon. Its easier to drink now its cold but I'm not getting that must have, super refreshing palate cleansing mouthfeel that my favourite saisons have had.

Despite that, an hour after pouring I'm sort of warming to the ascorbic aftertaste, and liking the sour fruit that goes with it. Its complex, slightly unbalanced and surprising. Much like a lot of people I know and care about.

In conclusion then, I like this beer, but its nothing like what I expected. Its acidic bitterness is odd yet not unpleasant, but its aroma is hardly enticing and its probably not worth the price. If you had never tasted saison before I'm not sure you'd try it again after this - but if you had, I fear like me you'd spend all your time wondering why it wasn't as good as the Urthel for example - or the stupendous Dark Star cask Saison, which was epic.
The answer to the conundrum then? Now I think I know less about saison and more about expectation than I did before. I thought all saisons were meant to be fresh and lemony and delicately sweet and were brewed for farm workers (apologies if I have walked into some obvious beer writers in joke here!). Fantome is none of those things. And I have no confidence in the idea that the previous statement means this is not a proper saison beer either!
I can't even work out if that's good....

Wee Beefy


  1. I thought it was quite possibly the best Saison I've ever tasted. They're supposed to be a farmhouse brew, thus rough round the edges and thus tart and/or slightly sour from the wild yeasts, brett etc. While Dupont Saison is a great beer, it's too clean, the Fantôme is probably more "true to style", to quote an American saying...

    1. Ay up,

      I suspected people would say this and it was only the rather neverending length of my post that persuaded me to leave out further clarification.

      Which is : my yearning, based on its farmhouse credentials, was for a refreshing beer - but am I extrapolating farmhouse brewing with "beer for the workers"? Its possible I have had my outlook influenced by the sensational cask saison from Dark Star. Maybe I am missing out on the real stuff, or that I am expecting a beer that isn't true to style.

      If that's the case, this puts me in an awkward position - perhaps I don't like traditional saison? Luckily, the only way to explore that is to buy lots more. A joyous uncertainty am sure you'd agree.

      Any recommendations (preferably less exclusive/more affordable)?

    2. It all depends on your point of view, I thought the Fantôme Saison was refreshing, but then I think beers like Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen lambics are refreshing!

      Try the De Ranke Saison De Dottignies, it's got a bit of funk about it. If you prefer them on the cleaner side, then take a look at the Ellezelloise Saison 2000, I haven't had it for a while, but it was more in the Dupont mould if I recall correctly.

      While you're at it, try the De Ranke XX Bitter and some aged Orval, they can both have plenty of Brett funk if left long enough and can be quite entertaining to drink.

    3. Thanks, interesting re the Orval and older saisons (assuming Ellezellouise is aged from that year?!) the whole brett thing is a puzzle for me since I reckon I don't mind it based on its appearance and sometimes dominance in traditional aged beers, especially imperial stouts.

      Re finding other saisons to try - whilst I realise its "seasonal", I Was in the Sheffield Tap tonight, a paragon of choice, and discovered they have precisely no saison whatsoever! Seems an online suppplier will have to fill the void left by the more (seemingly) adventurous pubs.