The Brew Man Group – Saison du BUFF

Dan Armstrong, Neil Partridge - 4A Mechanical, 4A Chemical
Posted on: November 17, 2010

***Includes Photos****

Dearest brew-friends, is it already that time of the term again? You know, the post-midterm pre-final bender season? Indeed it is, and it would be the Brew Man Group’s honour to start you off on the right foot, with some delicious cool beer (but not ice-cold… that mutes flavours!). This week, we have a beer that will curl your toes and send shivers down your spine, and only possibly in the euphoric sense. The saison, dear readers, is one of the most interesting beer styles being attempted by the world’s brewers. Some will rave about its complex flavours and distinct character, while others will cringe in confused disgust as they deal with the indigestion that (rarely, but occasionally) can occur from consuming beers of this nature. For better or worse, you likely won’t have to deal with that indigestion since saisons are quite hard to find in Ontario.
Neil: Saison (French for ‘season’, for you non-bilinguals) as a style is probably one of the more outrageous offspring of Belgian origin. These beers are diverse in nature, owing to the fact that they were brewed independently from farm-to-farm in the region of Wallonia. No, that is not a mythical forest in WoW, but simply the French speaking region in Belgium… nerd. Anywhooo, each of these ales was brewed in the autumn, aged during winter and spring and served in the summer months as a potable, refreshing ale to farmhands. Just like in modern times, drunken operation of farming equipment leads to bad times, so these beers traditionally stayed at approximately 3% (booo!). Thankfully the modern interpretation has diverged into the “jolly-zone” of 5-8% (hooray!). In addition, potent spicing like orange zest, coriander or ginger may be added to the brewer’s satisfaction. Combine this with super high fermentation temperatures, consequently leading to the potential for wild yeast cultures (which help to develop some wacky flavour and digestion problems, such as the “horsey” flavour of Brettanomyces.) All in all, saison is perhaps one of the most interesting, albeit unknown, beasts in North America (the other beast of course, alluding to me).

Dan: The saison we’ll be sampling today is the product of collaboration between three prominent American breweries, namely Dogfish Head (of Delaware), Stone (of California), and Victory (of Pennsylvania). The three owners, Sam Calgione, Greg Koch, and Bill Covaleski respectively, met together for the first time in 2003 as a trio under the self-ascribed name BUFF (Brewers United for Freedom of Flavour). Hoping to gain some sort of beer-culture notoriety, they held a press conference to publicize the union. Turns out, no one really cared. But hey, this was way back in 2003. Each of the three breweries have remained leaders in the craft beer revolution of recent years, and when they announced a collaboration brew last year, the modern beer nerds nearly sh*t their pants (or just started blogging and tweeting and raised expectations to unattainable levels… whatever).

The idea for this brew was to maintain the fruity ester and spice flavours of a classic saison but to add some unique characteristics (as American brewers tend to do) by including herbs such as sage, rosemary, and thyme. Such experiments aren’t uncommon when it comes to collaboration beers. When Brooklyn Brewery and Germany’s Schneider teamed up, the result was a culture-clashing hopped-up imperial hefeweizen (that was actually really good). Recently Samuel Adams met with Weihenstephan to brew a new champagne-style beer than still follows the ancient German Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law). The moral here is that collaboration leads to experimentation, and when geniuses experiment, that leads to deliciousness. In this case, three geniuses got together and made a beer recipe, then returned home to each produce a single batch. Today we’ll be tasting Stone’s batch of Saison du BUFF.

Neil’s thoughts: Studying the particularly plain looking bottle, I can’t help but notice the beer is brewed with the very “non-Belgianesque” spicing of sage, thyme, and rosemary. I have to cut the brewers some slack though; they ARE arguably the brightest brew-masters in America, noted for taking some risks here and there… Nonetheless, my first quick sniff of the brew (thankfully) seems to reveal more of citrus punch than pasta sauce, all backed up with a little Belgian funk. Upon pouring delicately in our standard tasting glass, an egg white head flares up like with no provocation, so perhaps the carbonation is a little overdone. However we did bottle-age the sucker for several months, meaning the extra carbonation may have been owing to our patience (damn that patience, nothing good comes when you wait). The taste backs this up, where the prickling sting of CO2 is not entirely welcome, as it seems to fight and mask the aforementioned profile. With that said it’s still a pretty beer (like, Adrianna Lima pretty), as well as quaffable. To get up high in my books, especially for a saison, the advertised spices should show through and compliment the brew. For this reason, I rate this beer lower than its potential. [3/5]

Dan’s thoughts: ‘Belgian funk’ is a term that requires some tasting experience to fully understand. In short, it’s the product of wild yeasts being allowed (or forced) into the fermentation vessels. The result is an odd, sometimes sour, sometimes leather-y or “horse”-like flavour.  Some saisons show off these controversial flavours in abundance, while some keep them toned down (the style has no strict guidelines, so neither practice is right or wrong). Saison du BUFF, it can be noted immediately from a first sniff, is on the lighter side of the Belgian funk spectrum, but does include the classic flavours of lemon/acidic fruit and peppery spice. The taste mostly follows this profile, but brings in a touch of the aforementioned herbs (a touch is all you’d want), and an unexpected bitterness in the aftertaste.

When drinking a saison, I try to keep in mind how open to interpretation the style can be, and judge it simply on how good it tastes, not how well it fits a certain profile. This is definitely a tasty beer, complete with fruity citrus, spice, herbs, and a light dose of funk. While the relatively high carbonation might have bothered Neil, my only complaint is the relatively high bitterness, which might have been even worse had we drunk it back in August when I received it as a gift. Despite this, its unique flavour profile and sheer tastiness make me into a fan. [4/5]

Recommended for consumption. Also seek out: Saison Dupont, Unibroue Blonde de Chambly, Fantome Saison.

Props to hops // Dan and Neil