Three Tasty Saisons
Note: this post had more garbled English than usual. I've tried to clean it up.
On Saturday, the Cascade Barrel House hosted a saison tasting, with a dozen and a half examples to demonstrate the breadth of the style. As a tuning fork, they had Saison Dupont on tap. Not that this is the only way saisons can be made or should--but as a matter of perfect pitch, you can't do any better. I tasted most of what was on offer, and was pleased with most. Three, however, really stood out and deserve special mention.
1. Boulevard Tank 7
Saisons are a state of mind as much as a style, and Boulevard does a magnificent job of capturing their essence without being slavish to a Belgian norm. Perhaps as a nod to the region, Boulevard's version uses corn and wheat in the grist, and the result is a soft, lightly sweet malt base as comforting and familiar as a bowl of porridge. The aroma is pure saison, though, with a musty, slightly cellarlike quality the yeast gives. The yeast also provides some interesting pepper notes, and while the grains are suggestive of sweetness, the beer is really quite dry and finishes with a crisp snap. An impressive beer that I would rank with Ommegang Hennepin as the best American examples I've tried.
2. Cascade Fume
I'm a fan of smoked beers, but Iwould have skipped Fume without a second thought except that people kept raving about it. The idea of smoked malt and saison yeast struck me as being roughly as compatible as anchovies and ice cream. Fortunately, others' minds were more open than mine. What I discovered was a very lightly smoked malt in an otherwise typical Dupont-style saison. But where Cascade's Saison de la Maison was wet and a mite sweet in the middle for my palate, the smoked malt dried out Fume. It added an austerity and richness, and when you swallowed, it clipped all sense of sweetness and evaporated instantly, like a wisp of smoke. Of all the attempts to find new ground beyond Dupont, this is the most interesting and palatable I've enjoyed.
3. Breakside Amarillo Saison
With apologies to Rod Serling, there should be a warning label on Breakside's beer reading: "You unlock this beer with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of aroma, a dimension of flavor, a dimension of mind. You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas; you've just crossed over into the twilight zone of beer." I overheard people denouncing this beer; I watched people dump it; others just expressed shock and confusion. I loved it. Admittedly, when I took the first sip into my mouth, my eyes bugged out and rolled around in surprise. This beer is off the grid.
We often talk about hops as tasting like grapefruit, but this is an evocation. Flavors can only be described by other flavors; we triangulate from there. But Breakside's saison?--it really does taste like grapefruit. The hops provide one element, but it's the aromatic, oily part, not the juice. Add a dose of brettanomyces and you get the sour and bitter--the fruit itself. It was an amazingly resinous beer, and long, long after I quit drinking it, it was still managing to throw my palate off. Still, the intensity, once I submitted to it, was beguiling. By the time I finished my taster, I wasn't even thinking of it as all that intense. It was, but my palate had re-calibrated. I don't doubt that only a few, proud drinkers would find this beer worthy of praise, but I am among their company, and it is indeed worth praising. Approach cautiously, but prepare for a new dimension...