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!