Tag Archives: Brettanomyces

Of Coolships, Cobwebs, and Cantillon

Cantillon needs no introduction. Even if you’re not yet a convinced imbiber of wild-fermented beers, chances are you’ve at least heard of Cantillon, that legendary Brussels brewery of mythic proportions and mystical imaginings. If lambic and gueuze producers in Flemish Brabant merit pilgrimages, Cantillon is the holy grail.IMG_7968Cantillon’s sterling reputation rests on its charm, and has as much to do with its defense of tradition as it does with what’s in the bottle. Pulley-and-gear-driven mash tuns, shallow cool ships in the attic with louvers to control the airflow and temperature, a hop-aging room smelling of old hay and cheese, cobwebs stretched between the rafters, a barrel fermentation room with its characteristic musty-woody smell, and row upon row of aging racks downstairs: The brewery stands as a testament to how beer was brewed at a time when Paul Cantillon set up shop in the Anderlecht district of Brussels at the turn of the twentieth century.IMG_7904 Unlike many other lambic and gueuze producers that have updated their facilities, the dark, timbered, and cobwebbed Cantillon brewery is like a trip back in time.

In Defense of Tradition

Back when Cantillon started slaking the thirst of Anderlecht’s workers, Brussels was home to over a hundred breweries. Today, only two remain: Bellevue, an InBev entity that caters to mass tastes with its sweetened gueuze-like and kriek-like beers, and Cantillon. As the Cantillon brochure pointedly puts it, nowadays “the world of Lambic is dominated by big business and its centuries-old name has been tarnished by large-scale industrial production.”

Up early, we hit the bikes and headed in the direction of Anderlecht, arriving at Cantillon well before noon. Wary of leaving our bikes on the street, we asked the elderly woman selling tickets in the brewery if we could bring our bikes inside. As it turns out, she’s the last living Cantillon, wife of Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the gent who took up the reins of the brewery in the 1960s. And there she was, working in the family business on a Saturday morning, selling 7-euro tickets for the self-guided tour and tasting to follow.

A brewery dominated by the dictates of big business Cantillon is not. The spiders in the rafters upstairs bear witness to the fact. (More on those spiders later.)

Turning Wheat and Barley into Lambic and Gueuze

Cantillon does things in a manner reminiscent of days when artisans were aided by the labour-saving devices of early industrialism. Cranks and pulleys drive a mash tun that looks like a museum piece, and wood’s the word when it comes to fermentation.IMG_7913

Once the wort has finished its boil, it spends the night cooling in a shallow copper vessel tucked among the rafters of the attic. This vessel, known as a coolship, is designed to expose as much of the wort as possible to the evening breezes regulated by wooden louvers that open out into the cool night. Microorganisms resident in the attic and evening air inoculate the wort during this early stage of the fermentation process. An ambient temperature between 3 and 8 degrees Celsius is crucial; too warm, and undesirable yeast and bacteria gain the upper hand. This is why the brewing season typically lasts from October through April only, although recent global warming trends may eventually spell an even shorter brewing season.IMG_7920Bright and early the next morning the brewers set to work transferring the wort into oak or chestnut barrels, where fermentation can take up to three years. During this time, the microbes that inoculated the wort overnight, together with the organisms that inhabit the barrel, produce the astounding array of aromas characteristic of lambic.

Now it’s just a matter of patience. Here’s where the spiders and cobwebs come in. Insects just can’t seem to resist the fermenting beer and the summer deliveries of fresh fruit that Cantillon uses to make its kriek and other fruit beers. Cantillon uses 150 kg of fruit for every 500 liters of two-year-old lambic, so it’s no wonder that the insects are drawn to the brewery. Rather than risk having insecticides seep into the casks, the brewers leave the job of insect control to the spiders.

A word on the barrels: the type of wood used to make the barrels is not as important for lambic makers as it is for winemakers. Rather, lambic brewers prefer barrels already used by winemakers and, to a lesser extent, Cognac producers.IMG_7933 New barrels impart too much tannin and oak character, while used barrels lend that beguiling suggestion of wine. Over repeated use, each barrel develops a character unto itself as the diverse microflora take up residence.

Patience Rewarded

After the lambic reaches a certain point in the fermentation and maturation process, it’s ready to drink straight from the barrel. More often than not, though, the lambics are blended to make gueuze. Gueuze is made from a blend of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics originating, in Cantillon’s case, from as many as eight barrels. The oldest portion of the blend provides the character, and the youngest portion of the blend initiates a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The result: a dry and tart ale with a dense and frothy foam cap.

Lambics and gueuzes are sometimes described as vinous or cidery, and have a distinctive sour quality. Aromas and flavours range from fruity (citrus, green apples, tart cherry) to phenolic-spicy, from earthy and leathery to oaky with hints of vanilla. And then there’s all that funk: horse blanket, barnyard, cheese, hay.

Not your father’s BudMillerCoors.

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Now that we’ve spent the past half hour or so wandering through the brewery on our self-guided tour, it’s time to put those tasting tokens to work.

The lambic exhibits a solidly tannic note from the wood, some fresh meadow scent, and a slight tartness. As for the gueuze? Scents of tropical fruit, aged hops with a distinctive cheese quality, pungent flowers, barnyard, ghee, and green apple. On the palate it was creamy, tannic, and with a pleasant lemon-funk rounded out by green apple and a touch of slate-like minerality.

*Of note: The Cantillon lambics and gueuzes that I tasted at the brewery and elsewhere in the Brussels region in May 2016 had an interesting cheese-like pungency on the nose when young –– not overpowering, but clearly present. Later, in June 2016, I tasted a gueuze that was bottled in June 2014. The aged version had developed plenty of additional complexity, and the “cheese” character had aged out into hay, horse/horse blanket, pineapple brett, and gooseberry.IMG_7944

Rosé de Gambrinus is made in the same way as kriek, but with raspberries instead of cherries. Thanks to the skills of the good brewers of Cantillon, the raspberry shines through bright and fresh, as if it has just been picked. The star of the show, though, was a bottle of Foufoune (apricot gueuze-lambic). The subtle yet intense apricot aromas and flavours were exquisite.

Alas, much as we would have liked to taste our way through all of Cantillon’s intriguing offerings, we had made previous arrangements to take a bicycle tour of Brussels. Needless to say, it’s just a matter of time before I head back to Cantillon.

If you’ve had a chance to try the Vigneronne, the Cuvée Saint-Gilloise, the Saint-Lamvinus, the Iris, or any of the Lou Pépé bottlings, let us know how they tasted.

Related Tempest Articles

For more on the differences between lambic, gueuze, and kriek, and for tips on where you can find all the Belgian beer you’d ever want to drink, see my Where the Wild Beers Are: Brussels and Flemish Brabant.

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s 2013 La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Three Vintages of Goose Island’s Sofie

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer in the Fridge?

Sources

On the technical and aesthetic aspects of lambic brewing, including turbid mashes, hop aging, and characteristic ester and phenolic profiles of various yeast and bacteria strains, see Jeff Sparrow, Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewers’ Yeast (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2005).

“Brewery Cantillon: Traditional Family-Run Brewery,” (Brussels, n.d.).

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All images by F.D. Hofer

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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Where the Wild Beers Are: Brussels and Flemish Brabant

Skimming place names on a map of Belgium is like going into a prodigiously stocked bottle shop. Where do you start in a country with a beer heritage as rich as it is in Belgium? Trappist beers, witbier, saison, Flanders red, oud bruin? What about all those famous towns like Chimay, Roeselare, Poperinge, and Westvleteren –– to say nothing of urban beer havens such as Antwerp and Leuven?

For me, the choice was relatively easy: I had never had the opportunity to taste lambic, those Belgian ales discussed in hushed and reverent tones among adepts of the zymurgical arts, beers that rarely make it beyond the immediate vicinity of Brussels.IMG_7820

Lambic had become something of a holy grail for me.

So when I found out that an old friend had moved to Brussels for work, it was only a matter of time before I made the pilgrimage. My friend got things off the ground the right way, greeting me upon my arrival from the airport with gueuze and kriek from Oude Beersel. Things only got better from there.

Scratching the Surface of Brussels’ Beerscape

Before venturing out into the countryside around Brussels, why not an evening of aperitifs to set the stage? Brussels –– capital of one of the most fascinating beer countries in the world –– doesn’t disappoint on this score.

Our first stop was À la Mort Subite, a classic Belgian beer café dating from the prime of the post-Great War years before the Depression. Cream-coloured walls, wooden brasserie-style tables and chairs, small globe lights casting a soft light over the cafe, brown bench seating built in along the periphery walls, rows of painted metal art-nouveau columns, an arched threshold with wood-framed doors, and a floor-to-ceiling showcase window perfect for watching the world drift by. Blink and you might think you’d been transported back to the 1920s.IMG_7798 I ordered up a Mort Subite Witte Lambic, which sounded interesting on the surface of things. It turned out to be a sweet and apricot-fruity beer –– refreshing and approachable, but with little in the way acidity and no wild-fermented complexity. Fortunately, though, this mild ordering fail did nothing to detract from the atmosphere of the place. And besides, there’s plenty more on the menu.

From there, we made our way to Moeder Lambic via the Galeries Royales St-Hubert and the Grand Place, which was actually quite grand. Tastefully lit at night, it’s the kind of place that has the power to stop even seasoned Euro travelers in their tracks. If you’re there during the day, check out the brewing museum in the Brewers’ Guildhall (L’Arbre d’Or).IMG_7808

Moeder Lambic on Place Fontainas serves up lambic, gueuze, and other styles aplenty. Their expansive menu makes for some interesting reading. Cantillon’s wares feature prominently, and rare bottlings from other lambic/gueuze producers abound as well –– some selling for as high as 200 euros per bottle. If you want to keep it simple but still be able to try something you won’t find far beyond the Brussels region, opt for a Gueuze Tilquin on draft.

Lambic, Gueuze, and Kriek in Flemish Brabant

The next day dawned all golden sunshine, auguring well for our planned cycling tour of the fabled valley where the wild-fermented beers are.

The Senne/Zenne rises north of Brussels and once flowed through the city before it was covered over in the nineteenth century as part of an ambitious urban works project that dramatically reshaped city. Today, the river reemerges to the southwest and continues on its gentle way through the rolling hills of the Payottenland.IMG_7856 As late as the turn of the twentieth century, some three hundred lambic brewers lined the Senne and spread out into the surrounding hills and farmland. Now the region is home to just over a dozen lambic brewers and blenders, with only one –– perhaps the most famous one –– located within the Brussels city limits.

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After a walk through the monumental and rather monolithic Parc du Cinquantenaire, we boarded a train from Gare Bruxelles-Schuman to Hal/Halle. The short train ride leaves just the right amount of time to talk about those enchanting and enigmatic ales that brought me here. I realize that unless you’re an avowed beer enthusiast or “beer geek,” you might not know what a lambic is –– and that’s just fine. It took me some time as well to disentangle lambics from gueuzes and krieks, and Flemish red ales from oud bruins.

A lambic is a spontaneously fermented ale made from Pilsener malt and anywhere between thirty to forty percent unmalted wheat. This sets lambic apart from German or American wheat beers, which use malted wheat. Lambic gets its minimal hop charge from Belgian or Central European varieties that have been aged for up to three years.IMG_7919 Process-wise, the wort is set out to cool overnight in a large shallow vessel called a coolship often located in the attic of the brewery before being transferred to barrels for fermentation. During the months and years the beer spends in the barrel, the microbes that inoculated the wort overnight join forces with the organisms that inhabit the barrel to work their magic. The resulting array of aromas and flavours might, at first blush, strike anyone unfamiliar with spontaneously fermented beers as downright odd, if not repulsive. Sometimes described as vinous or cidery, lambics typically exhibit lactic, citric, or malic (apple) sourness, and they can be tart and tannic when young. Notably, lambic brewers aim for a level of acidity similar to that of a zippy white wine. Balance is key. More does not necessarily mean better.

The same goes for the “funk” level in the aromatics and flavours. Sure, the Saccharomyces, Pediococcus, Brettanomyces, Lactobacillus, and other organisms combine to impart aromas at times reminiscent of barnyard, hay, horse, horse blanket, and washed rind cheese. But the concentrations should be “pleasant.” Admittedly, like durian or pungent cheese, it’s an acquired taste, but worth the effort.

Sound appetizing so far? Depending on the various yeast and bacteria strains, lambics may also recall pineapple, tart cherry, oak, and even honey as the beer ages. Whether you’re a fan of sour/wild-fermented beers or not, what might strike you most about lambics is the (virtual) absence of carbonation. Like most wines, lambics are still. Don’t be disappointed if you don’t see any trace of a head on your beer. That’s entirely normal.IMG_7864

Comprised of one-, two-, and three-year-old lambics, gueuze showcases the skills of the seasoned blender. Highly effervescent, gueuze is to Champagne what lambic is to wine. Under optimal cellaring conditions a gueuze will continue to evolve for years. Dry, tart, and with a dense and frothy foam cap, gueuzes run the gamut from fruity (citrus, green apples, tart cherry) to phenolic-spicy, from earthy and leathery to oaky with hints of vanilla, and from fresh-cut hay to barnyard and horse blanket.

IMG_7872Kriek is a younger lambic to which cherries have been added. But don’t expect a well-brewed traditional kriek to be sweet. Wild yeasts thrive on the sugars present in the fruit, leaving behind an intense fruit character with no residual sweetness. If you have a kriek that tastes sweet and syrupy, it has been back-sweetened. Best bet: look for a bottle that has “oude” in front of the word kriek. Cantillon adds 150 kg of Schaerbeek sour cherries per 500 liters of two-year-old lambic and leaves the cherries to macerate for five to six months before adding a quantity of young lambic –– one third of the volume of the kriek for anyone who wants to try this at home –– to kickstart secondary fermentation in the bottle.

Biking for Beer in Lambic Land

Chances are, you didn’t bring a bike with you to Belgium. No worries. You can rent a passable bicycle for 10 euros per day near the Halle train station. Exit on the east side and return along the tracks in the direction of Brussels and you’ll find the rental place. Before venturing out for that ride through the countryside, keep in mind that Flemish Brabant is not flat. In exchange for a few hills, though, you get pastoral scenery that inspired the likes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and some room in your belly for beer.IMG_7825

We jumped on our bikes, took a slightly round-about route through farmers’ fields and small villages to Beersel via Huizingen and Lot, stopped briefly at the Kasteel Beersel to learn about the lambic and gueuze possibilities in the area from one of the castle attendants, and then braced ourselves for the hill to Drie Fonteinen.

After talking with one of the brewers who works on the barrels, we made our way to to Drie Foneinen’s restaurant for –– finally!! –– my first-ever sip of lambic.IMG_7823 Wonderful stuff! Worth the journey to Brussels, the train ride to Halle, and the ride up the steep hill to the Beersel town square. Absolutely still with a few errant bubbles skirting the surface of the beer, darker than I expected (amber-hued, an indicator of some barrel age), and slightly hazy. Refined, with a subdued tartness and a meadow-like scent of hay. The Oude Gueuze was lively, with plenty of juicy lemon and green apple along with an oak/tart cherry character from the wood. Hungry after all that riding around, we tucked into a generous portion of Stoofkarbonaden, a rich rabbit stew that was an ideal foil for the Oude Gueuze’s acidity.

Slightly down the other side of the hillock you’ll find Oude Beersel. Everything was locked up tight when we arrived, but I rang the bell anyway. Just as we were about to give up and move on, the door swung open and one of the brewers invited us in for more lambic and an animated conversation about larger versus smaller lambic producers. If you show up on a Saturday between 9:00 am and 2:00 pm, you won’t have to ring the bell. Oude Beersel runs English-language tours at 12:30 on the first and third Saturday of the month.IMG_7892

Then down the hill we went, and back up a hill, and back down, till finally we landed back in Halle, where we returned the bikes and took a bus to Lembeek in search of Boon. Just our luck. It, too, was closed. So I rang the bell again and waited until someone poked his head out of a second-story window and arranged a fabulous personalized tour for us with one of the brewers.IMG_7853

Frank Boon, a driving force behind the gueuze and lambic revival, opened his brewery on a site that was once a seventeenth-century farmhouse brewery and distillery. Boon’s brewers still brew on their old system, but they have also installed a shiny new brewery around and adjacent to the old one. Though some of the initial fermentation now takes place in stainless steel tanks, Boon still maintains a large cellar stacked with barrels for aging.

Not far from the gates of the brewery and just off Lembeek’s small town square you’ll find De Kring, a cozy café with an excellent selection of Boon beverages. We rewarded ourselves for a day well spent –– there’s something wholesome about biking for your beer –– with bottles of Oude Gueuze Boon and Kriek Mariage Parfait, which was stunning it its crystalline expression of cherry flavour. De Kring evokes a bygone era when locals of all ages gathered in the local tavern for a drink, sometimes with the kids in tow. With its wood paneling and diffused light, this classic café feels like a trip back in time.IMG_7862 Go there before time catches up to it.

Brussels Reprised

What better way to cap a day of riding around the Payottenland countryside in search of lambic and gueuze than to head out for the exact same thing in the big city?

With a pleasant glow, we stepped into the evening sunshine and made our way back to Brussels for dinner at Bier Circus Bruxelles, another renowned Brussels watering hole, for a Girardin lambic and Gueuze Girardin 1882, both of which exhibited a distinctively round, mildly lactic buttery note. Pair them with the Waterzooi, a Flemish specialty made from fish, chicken, or veal. I had the fish version, an excellent fit with the beers we had.

Coffees done, we headed over to L’Ultime Atome, a cool bar in the Ixelles neighbourhood with funky Japanese-influenced lighting fixtures, floor-to-ceiling windows, and plenty of hazelnut-coloured wood for one last round before calling it a night.

Tomorrow, Cantillon.

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Odds and Ends

I didn’t get around to visiting the Bezoekercentrum De Lambiek (Lambic Visitor Center) in Alsemberg near Beersel. Simply too much to do and see. By all accounts, this museum and tasting facility provides a prime opportunity to sample most of the region’s gueuzes, lambics, and krieks in one place. Next time.

Related Tempest Articles

A Twist of Sour: New Belgium’s 2013 La Folie and Verhaeghe’s Duchesse de Bourgogne

Craft Beer at Time’s Precipice: Cellaring Tips

A Rodenbach Grand Cru in the Fridge, or a Six-Pack of Lesser Beer in the Fridge?

Sources

Jeff Sparrow, Wild Brews: Beer Beyond the Influence of Brewers’ Yeast (Boulder, CO: Brewers Publications, 2005).

“Brewery Cantillon: Traditional Family-Run Brewery,” (Brussels, n.d.).

Gregg Glaser, “In Search of Lambic,” All About Beer Magazine (July 1, 2001).

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Your Saturday 6-Pack, Vol.5): Saison

Said Theseus to Philostrate: “Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments. / Awake the pert and nimble spirits of mirth.”

And said a more contemporary Jane to Dick: “Get thee hither and fire up that damn lawnmower, for it has been more than a fortnight since you’ve put your sickle to a blade of grass!”

Back by popular demand, and just in time for the dog days of summer, Your Saturday Six-Pack. Let us raise a few glasses of suitable ale in honour of those days that occasion dreamy hallucinations. Bring on something crisp, dry, effervescent, fruity, and spicy!

Saison it is.

Depending on whom you read or talk to, the Walloons in the French-speaking part of Belgium brewed a low-alcohol seasonal beer that was meant to quench the thirst of farmhands during the summer. Others claim that Saison beers were, like the Märzens of Bavaria, brewed to a higher gravity in late spring to outlast the summer months. As with so much pertaining to beer and history, myth and fact go hand-in-hand, and I have no intention of cutting through the thicket of fact and fiction for the time being. Suffice it to say, we have enough extant interpretations –– the quaffable Saison de table, the more robust Saison de provision –– to suggest that this is anything but a settled style. Add to this the terminological slippage between “Farmhouse ale” and “Saison,” and you have a perfect midsummer night’s storm that’ll keep the beer geeks debating into the wee hours.

In lieu of a BJCP-like description of the style, I propose a few drinks. Many of these beers are widely available in sizeable North American beverage markets, some less so. One is an absolute classic. All come highly recommended by yours truly. Diversity is the only thread that unifies my selection.

Cellar Door (Stillwater Artisan Ales, Maryland)

StillwaterArtisinal - cellardoor_crop2Stillwater bills its Cellar Door as an American farmhouse ale “gently finished …. with a touch of white sage.” German wheat and pale malts overlaid with Sterling and Citra hops lie at this complex beer’s foundation. The dominant aromas that make their way past the towering foam cap crowning this hazy golden blond beer are nothing if not herbal, with a dash of lavender and citrus (tangerine) taming the sage. Add some honey, clove-spiked peach, and white pepper to this basil-sage keynote, and you might think you’ve landed in the fields of Provence. Lime zest-infused honey links up with freshly mown hay and an echo of tropical fruit before being cut through with an effervescent carbonation and a refreshing minerality. A crisp, sage-brush dryness near the finish raises the curtain on a lingering light brown sugar and dried apricot aftertaste. Note: This aromatic beer is excellent fresh, but a bit of age lends the beer even more depth and a subtle roundness. One Tankard.

Tropic King Imperial Saison (Funkwerks, Colorado)

Fort Collins’ Funkwerks brews more than one Saison/farmhouse ale, but the Tropic King laden with Rakau hops from New Zealand is one of those passion fruit-mango-peach explosions that makes you sit up and take notice.Funkwerks - TropicKing With its orange and amber hues, the beer is sunshine in a glass, and the candy floss-like foam cap lingers long enough to bring you right back to the amusement parks of your childhood. A whiff of old hay and henna mingle with an intense tropical fruit character that gives the Brettanomyces an elegant touch. Passion fruit and mango dance with honeyed malt on the spritzy palate, but pepper and zesty ginger notes keep the beer refreshingly dry. In a word, Brett-and-spice bitterness and dryness balanced by a malt richness and intense tropical fruit. At 8% ABV, you’ll want to resist the urge to quaff this one on a hot day. Two Tankards.

Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale (Boulevard Brewing Company, Missouri)

Like the Tropic King, this eminently drinkable beer from Boulevard’s Smokestack Series is no wall flower in the ABV department. It’s also the base beer for their delicious Saison-Brett, which I wrote about in May. As the story at Boulevard goes, “most breweries have a piece of equipment that’s just a bit persnickety.” Tank Seven was the proverbial black sheep at Boulevard.Boulevard Tank 7 Turns out, though, that the vessel did wonders for their Belgian-style farmhouse ale, and this delicious beer was born. Hazy honey-gold with a vigorous collar of foam, this richly textured marriage of Belgian yeast and North American hops brings apricot-accented tropical fruit to the fore, followed by waves of orange-grapefruit citrus, an earthy spice note that mingles white pepper and coriander together with a hint of pine. Big and bold, the unobtrusive malt backdrop of honeyed light brown sugar lets the mango-pineapple and muscat grape flavours shine through. Tank 7 manages to be luscious yet light-bodied and dry at the same time, with the malted wheat giving the beer a zesty lift near the finish. Two Tankards.

Saison Cazeau aux Fleurs de Sureau (Brasserie de Cazeau, Belgium)

CazeauFleurAnd now for something a little different. For those of you who don’t feel like pulling out your French dictionaries or googling “sureau,” it means elderflower. And the elderflower in this supple ale the colour of hay lends it an air of fragrant meadows and floral honey. But it’s not just the floral notes that make this beer unique. Along with the clove-pepper-spice calling card of Belgian yeast, you might just detect a jalapeno note reminiscent of Cabernet Franc grapes. An ample bed of wheat and bready malt keeps this dry, crisp, peppery, and subtly floral beer afloat. Clocking in at a mere 5% ABV, Saison Cazeau is yet more proof that you don’t need a tonne of alcohol to get stellar flavours in your beer. One Tankard.

Saison du Buff (Dogfish Head, Delaware)

I picked this beer up with no small amount of trepidation. An ale brewed with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme has to be a train-wreck, right? But if anyone can awake the pert and nimble spirits of mirth, I thought, it’s the good folks at Dogfish Head.DogfishHead - saison-du-buff The beer starts playfully enough, with sunny golden saffron hues sounding the prelude for sage, rosemary, honeyed papaya, green apple skin, a slate-like minerality, and the slightest trace of parsley, probably because I was looking for it. (Alas, the power of suggestion!) I take a sip and smell again. Honeydew melon, a bit like mead, with thyme becoming slightly more prominent alongside the sage. The herbs reprise themselves subtly on the palate, balanced by a sweet graham cracker-like maltiness. Highly effervescent and enhanced by a mild green apple tartness and a coriander-clove spiciness, the beer is well-balanced and not at all gimmicky. Herbs play well with the mild Belgian yeast aromatics, the one complementing and gently amplifying the other. It all harmonizes well to provide a complex herbal presence that gestures slightly in the direction of savoury, yet with a softly sweet honeyed presence. One Tankard for this whimsical beer.

Saison Dupont (Brasserie Dupont, Belgium)

Though the venerable Saison Dupont hails from Europe’s more northerly reaches, its radiant golden yellow with orange hues hints at the French Riviera. And then there’s the towering, pillowy foam, like a snow-capped Alpine peak on a hot day.SaisonDupont The best of both worlds. The aromatics open with a salvo of herbal-floral hops, followed immediately by white pepper, clove-coriander, grains of paradise, and a slate-like minerality. Peach-pear yeast notes and hints of ripe banana in the depths add fruit, with whispers of lightly kilned Munich (lightly toasted bread laced with a hint of melanoidin) making a cameo appearance. Saison Dupont is deft on the palate, combining tangerine-peach and an orange blossom floral essence with an off-dry bready-wheat-oat flake malt character before finishing crisply. The musky hops lend mid-palate spice before dried apricot and almonds take over in a finish where Crème de Noyaux meets Bon Maman apricot jam. Bright. Playfully fruity. And appetizingly bitter. The standard bearer of the style. Two Tankards.

I hope you enjoy the range of flavours and aromas in these summery beers as much as I do. For a Three-Tankard **bonus addition** to your six-pack, check out my write-up on Black Raven and make your six-pack a lucky seven.

A brief note on serving: Use a glass that allows for plenty of head space, for many of these beers have epic foam caps. Brasserie Dupont suggests serving their Saison at 12C/54F (cellar temperature), but I’ve found that slightly cooler temperatures flatter many of the Saisons I’ve written about here.

Related Tempest Articles

The Sunday Sour Sessions: Jolly Pumpkin’s Baudelaire Saison

Marking Time with a Brett-Saison from Boulevard

This Bird’s For You: Black Raven’s Pour Les Oiseaux Saison

Sources and Further Reading

Garrett Oliver, The Brewmaster’s Table (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).

Michael Jackson, The New World Guide to Beer (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1988).

Stillwater Artisanal Ales’ “My Works” blog.

Boulevard Brewing Company, “Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale.”

Brasserie Dupont, “Saison Dupont.”

Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Mendelssohn’s incidental music of the same name isn’t half bad either. Give it a listen while you’re drinking these fine beverages.)

Images

Labels and images from the respective breweries’ sites.

©2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

Marking Time with a 2013 Brett-Saison from Boulevard

Tempest is marking time in more ways than one these days.

  • Tempest recently turned eighteen months young.
  • It’s been far too long since I’ve been at my keyboard. April and May kept me busy with our local homebrew club, as did interview preparation for a new job. That latter effort paid off.
  • Tempest might take on a decidedly Euro flavour over the next few years, for in a little over three months I start a new position in Vienna.

Time to celebrate! For Tempest’s eighteen-month anniversary, I opened a 2013 Brett-Saison from Boulevard, and compared it with the notes I scribbled last November on a 2014 Brett-Saison a friend brought over for dinner. File these notes under cellaring –– another means of marking time.

Cheers to you for reading over these past eighteen months!

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Before we get into the Brett-Saison, here are a few highlights from the past six months.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Lagers: Your Saturday Six-Pack (Vol.3): Why? Because we really can’t drink too many lagers in one lifetime. For those who still need convincing, this 6-pack takes a few steps beyond the golden and the fizzy.

The MaltHead Manifesto: A tongue-in-cheek defense of malt over hops.IMG_1893

Five Ways to Become a Better Drinker in 2015: The take-away: glassware and serving temperatures.

New York’s Finger Lakes Region: A Back-Road Craft Beer Tour: Everything you need to know for your summer escape from the city.

In the Cool Shade of the Beer Garden: Summer’s on the horizon. Get ye to Munich. And read this before you go. Bonus: I was consulted for an article in The Atlantic on beer gardens.

A Taste of Oklahoma in Six Glasses: Who said there was nothing to drink in Oklahoma?

Spreading Good Cheer with a Tankard of Mulled Beer: ’Tis not quite the season, but tuck this recipe away for your winter entertaining. You won’t be disappointed.

Heading to Colorado this summer? Be sure to stop in at some of the breweries and brewpubs that I visited for my Northern Front Range series.

Striking Craft Beer Gold in Boulder

At the Foot of the Mountain: Boulder’s Brewpubs and Breweries 

Craft Beer in the Mile-High City: Colorado’s Northern Front Range Series

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And now for that Saison-Brett that has been waiting patiently.

Boulevard’s Saison-Brett is part of this venerable Kansas City brewery’s Smokestack Series of beers. The Saison-Brett begins its life as the already-excellent Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale before the brewers save some of it for dry-hopping and inoculation with Brettanomyces at bottling. Boulevard allows the bottles to condition a subsequent three months before release. The result, if you drink it within the first six months of release, is a vivaciously fruity-spicy beer with the first murmurings of Brett.IMG_1875

The 2014 vintage (April release) that I had in November 2014 was an appealingly luminescent honey-gold beer that exuded bright pineapple and passion fruit notes limned with suggestions of tangerine zest. The nascent Brett character evoked memories of hiking through Alpine meadows on a hot summer afternoon, and a hint of honey sweetness on the palate added a beguiling roundness to the effervescent and peppery-dry palate.

If you have the patience and inclination, cellaring will greatly alter the character of Boulevard’s Brett-Saison. Notice I didn’t say improve or enhance, but nor am I suggesting that the beer doesn’t gain in complexity with time. What you decide to do with your newly-purchased bottle of Saison-Brett will depend on what kinds of sensory qualities you’re after –– one of the joys of experimenting with age-worthy beers!

Fast-forward seven months. The Saison-Brett I have before me is a corked-and-caged 750mL bottling from March 2013, purchased in spring 2014 and cellared until now. Two-odd years removed from bottling, the vibrant fruit that marked the younger version has faded, replaced by predominant Brett notes of old hay, dusty blankets, farmyard, and a mixture of bandaid and allspice. Faint tropical fruit shimmers around the edges.

Age-worthy beers tend to open up and develop in the glass in ways similar to wine. After a few sips of this very dry beer that swirls together flavours of dried hay, dried flowers, and a slight echo of honey on a bracingly bitter palate that also offered up Seville orange marmalade on the finish, I turned my attention again to the aromas. And caught my breath after writing that sentence.IMG_2976

Orange zest. Dried flowers. Sagebrush. It’s as if the vivid tropical fruit of the younger version has given way to fields of herbs in dry Mediterranean climates. Head a bit north in Europe and you’ll find the muskiness of northern French apple cider alongside subdued coconut-citrus and lemongrass intertwined with hints of German Riesling (apricot and slate). Another round of sips reveals layers of white pepper and a nutty bitterness reminiscent of apricot kernels to match the flinty-dry minerality.

German Riesling meets Mediterranean summer fields and northern French apple cider? Why not.

(He’s making this stuff up, isn’t he?)

The verdict: The aged version of Boulevard’s Brett-Saison is nothing if not complex, but it’s a complexity marked less by the spirited fruitiness of younger versions than it is by a richly expressive Brett palette (meadows, hay, dried herbs and flowers, and nuanced fruit). For all the beer’s complexity, though, the bitterness of the aged version borders on distracting. That said, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from buying a bottle and forgetting about it for a year or two, especially if you’re a Brett aficionado and are willing to embrace the bitterness and dryness of the aged versions.

2014 Brett-Saison (consumed within six months of release): Two Tankards

2013 Brett-Saison (consumed two years and three months after release): One Tankard

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On the horizon: I’ll be setting out on a road trip from Oklahoma to Upstate New York in the next week or so, and will also head to Vancouver to visit family and friends before relocating to Vienna in mid-August. I’ll try to write two or three articles per month between now and early autumn. They’ll probably come out in short bursts whenever I can find the time to write, so check back periodically.

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Tempest has been on Instagram for the past six months. Check out Tempest on Facebook as well. I’ll be posting very short “photo essays” there over the summer and early autumn.

Related Tempest Articles

The Sunday Sour Sessions: Jolly Pumpkin’s Baudelaire Saison

The Curiosity Cabinet: Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée

Gose Gone Wild: Anderson Valley, Bayrischer Bahnhof, Choc, and Westbrook

Not Your Average Wheat Beer: Schneider’s Porter Weisse

All images by F.D. Hofer.

© 2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.

The Industry Series: Tasting Tips from Cornell Flavour Chemist, Gavin Sacks

Close your eyes for a moment and think about what the ideal job might entail. If it involves tasting wine or beer while working, read on.

Meet Gavin Sacks, Associate Professor in Food Science in Cornell University’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), a person who spends plenty of time with a glass in one hand and a pen in the other.IMG_0950 Sacks teaches courses that comprise part of Cornell’s interdisciplinary major in enology and viticulture, including Wine and Grapes: Analysis and Composition, and Wine and Grape Flavor Chemistry. With the teaching day done, Sacks gets down to the business of analyzing the flavour and aroma components of grapes and wine.

In this inaugural piece detailing careers within the beverage industry, Sacks––a flavour chemist who works closely with the New York State wine industry––tells us about how his work and research can enhance our appreciation of beer and wine. For those of us in search of tips about how to develop our palates, Sacks also spells out intriguing practical suggestions. And lest the beer-committed homebrewers among us despair at all the wine flowing early in this interview, stay with us for the ride. A greater awareness of the aromas that surround us can enable us to identity what went wrong––and what went right––with our beloved concoctions.

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I first met Gavin several years ago at a wine-tasting he had organized at the home of a mutual friend, and have had occasion since then to sit down to a meal, a few bottles of wine, and, from time to time, beer.Gavin Sacks - Faculty Page What struck me very early on was his focus on the flaws he perceived. But not only that: it was the words he used to describe the flaws. Hitherto, wine appreciation for me had usually involved grasping after an elusive vocabulary to describe what was pleasant about the wine. Occasionally, it was about trying to pin what was objectionable with words such as “oxidized” and “corked.” Sure, pungent cat odours intruded upon polite conversation about the gooseberry and boxwood character of many a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, but this is as far as things went. Describing wine with biochemical terms like esters, fusels, and phenols? It took some getting used to. If memory serves me correctly, the first time I heard the word “Brettanomyces” was when Gavin uttered it apropos of a particularly funky wine from the northern reaches of the Côtes-du-Rhône. A problematic beast, this bug called Brettanomyces

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A Tempest in a Tankard: What kind of research do you do? What are some of the most exciting aspects of your personal research, and what are some of the promising new directions opening up for your field in general?

Gavin Sacks: My research program focuses primarily on wine and grape flavor chemistry, and particularly on cultivars that are popular in New York State and other cool climates. Some very recent research projects by the lab include the following:NYS WineRegions (www-grapesandgrainsnyc-com) determining factors that limit extraction of tannins during winemaking, especially in cool climates; determining the cause of sulfurous off-aroma appearance during bottle storage; and developing easy and inexpensive tools for measurement of sulfites and volatile acidity in the winery.

We have also performed research in collaboration with viticulturalists to understand how growing practices affect flavor chemistry. For example, it’s well-known that precursors of the compound responsible for the “kerosene and petrol-like” note of Riesling will increase if the grapes are highly exposed to sunlight. We have determined that the critical window for this exposure is just before veraison (color-change). This may be useful to a producer interested in avoiding or increasing the petrol character of their wine.

As far as future directions, one of the hottest topics right now in wine chemistry is understanding the interaction of wine and trace levels of oxygen during storage. Enologists have a good grip on what happens if wines are exposed to large quantities of oxygen (namely, oxidation and wine spoilage), but the effects seen with exposing wines to more typical levels encountered in barrel, tank, or bottle are harder to predict.IMG_6216 Why do some wines improve in qualities such as color and mouthfeel following oxygen exposure, while others immediately brown, even though their chemical composition appears nearly identical? There are now storage tanks and some closures (not to mention micro-ox units) that allow in specific amounts of oxygen. That sounds great, but that’s only useful if a winemaker knows what to expect.

TT: Tell us a bit about your career trajectory. Did you have any inkling when you first started your undergraduate studies that you’d be working with the wine industry?

GS: When I completed my Ph.D. in chemistry, I had no expectations of working on wine for a career. I had a love of both teaching and research, and had planned to apply for traditional faculty positions in chemistry departments. I liked wine, but from a wine appreciation perspective. On a lark, I did a brief stint in a vineyard before starting a post-doc, which opened my eyes to the subject of wine and grape science. A few years later, when I saw that Cornell was advertising for a wine chemist, I thought “why not?”.

TT: How close are your ties with the wine industry of the Finger Lakes and the rest of New York State? Do wineries approach you/Cornell, or do you let it be known that you/Cornell can help them out?

GS: All of the Cornell enology faculty have close ties to Finger Lakes wineries as well as wineries in other New York State regions (Lake Erie, Long Island, etc.). My colleagues with extension appointments will work much more closely with commercial wineries on a day-to-day basis. This consultation work includes operating a wine and grape analysis lab with discounted rates for New York State winemakers, and organizing frequent workshops and short courses.

Although I do not have an extension appointment, I still work with wineries in the region, especially as part of collaborative research projects. For example, in a recent project, we were interested in understanding the persistence of a particular pesticide (elemental sulfur) on grapes that could lead to off-aromas during fermentation. We developed an easy technique to measure the pesticide, and distributed measurement kits to wineries. We then compiled results and presented them at winemaker conferences. Regional winemakers also host field trips by Cornell classes, provide guest lectures, and employ our students following graduation. IMG_1142TT: How much actual smelling and tasting do you do over the course of a given day or week?

GS: That will vary. In some of my spring classes, we may taste four to six wines per lecture, and if I’m also guest lecturing for other classes, and need to evaluate candidate wines ahead of time to confirm their appropriateness, that may mean a few dozen wines per week. I may also participate in a tasting session with other faculty and students, or else a local winemaker may drop by with some odd samples, all of which can mean another two to twenty wines in a day.

However, there are some weeks where the only wine I taste is what I drink with dinner. In sum, I think I taste fewer wines than many sommeliers or other wine professionals. But I probably taste a lot more weird and faulty stuff.

TT: How much of your research involves precision instruments, and how much of it relies on our notoriously capricious senses of smell and taste?

GS: It will depend on the project, and where we are in the project. A lot of wine research, my own and that of others, focuses on off-flavors. This isn’t because we like bad wine, but the reality is that most funding is available for fixing or avoiding problems. When was the last time you went to doctor because you were feeling great?

Many off-flavors are due to the presence of one or two chemical compounds in gross excess. Often, the initial work enologists do is to identify or confirm the identity of the offensive compounds, and then set up an instrumental method for their analysis. Subsequently, we use the instruments to see what factors affect the compound(s). Instruments offer better reproducibility, and don’t mind working through the evening, so they do the bulk of analysis. But at the end of the day, whether it’s a desirable or undesirable flavor, it’s important for us to use sensory panels to establish the initial target, and to confirm results once sample analysis is complete.

TT: Here’s a related question. How well do instruments quantify “smell” and “taste”? I’m assuming that they pick up on aspects of an aroma profile that we humans might miss at first.

GS: There are some things that can be predicted rather well by instrumental analysis. Sourness, for example, can be very well modeled in dry wines simply by determining the acid concentration via titration. The intensity of off-flavors can also often be modeled rather well, since these usually can be related to the presence of one compound in excess. There may be some variation in individual sensitivities to these off-flavors, but we can talk about averages for a population of wine consumers.

However, many aspects of flavor are hard to model from instrumental data. For example, “red fruit” and “black fruit” aromas arise from the presence and absence of lots of compounds, and predicting the intensity of these aromas is not easy. The same thing goes for a number of other wine terms, such as body. An added complication is that sensory panelists, even if they are wine professionals, often have a hard time using some sensory terms in a reproducible fashion. “Minerality,” for example, is notoriously difficult to get panelists to agree upon. Beer Flavor Wheel (www-beerflavorwheel-com)TT: What kinds of overlap is there between the flavour and aroma compounds of beer and wine (and other spirits)? Can you give some examples of the chemical compounds, along with how we might describe their flavour and aroma?

GS: To my knowledge, there are no flavor compounds unique to wine. Anything that can be found in wine can also be found in beer (or spirits, or coffee), and vice versa. Wine and beer differ in chemical composition quantitatively, not qualitatively. If you spend enough time and money, any wine compound could be detected, if only in extremely trace concentrations. Some examples of compounds common to both beer and wine:

  • Diacetyl: “buttery” aroma, desirable in some wine styles like barrel aged Chardonnay, but often undesirable in crisp lager beers
  • 4-mercapto-4-methyl-pentanone: “cat pee / grapefruit” aroma, important to the varietal character of both Sauvignon blanc wines and some hoppy IPAs
  • 4-ethylguaiacol and 4-ethylphenol: “clove/phenolic/barnyard” aroma, produced by Brettanomyces yeast, essential to the character of many Belgian farmhouse ales, but often considered a fault when they dominate wine

Also, flavor chemists use the word “flavor” as a general term to describe smell, taste, and mouthfeel.

TT: What kind of advice would you give to craft beer enthusiasts or budding wine connoisseurs who want to get the most out of their tasting sessions?

GS: Never, ever taste a single wine or beer at a time. Humans are lousy at doing sensory evaluation on a single product in a vacuum; we’re much better at doing comparative studies.

The other recommendation I’d give is to remember that there are no unique flavor compounds or flavors to be found in wine or beer. So, try to smell and taste lots of things, not just wine or beer. Go to a perfume shop or a candle store or an auto parts store and sniff everything. Buy a bunch of obscure fruits from the local Asian market and taste them. You will have a lot more “aha” moments as a result.

TT: Do you have any suggestions on putting together home flavour and aroma kits so that people can expand their sensory horizons?

GS: As I mentioned above, smell and taste everything around you, within reason. Kits are okay for faults training, but a lot of real aromas aren’t very stable, and the kits do a so-so job in reproducing them (and they get worse during storage). If you smell something interesting, track it down, and figure out what the cause is.

TT: In one of our conversations, you mentioned a grant proposal that you’re working on for a hop analysis lab at Cornell University. Can you tell us more about what you and your colleagues envision for this lab, and why you think it’s important for both the hop industry and brewing industry?

GS: The proposal would be for a lab at Cornell to perform malt, hop, and beer analysis for the growing industry. We have a similar lab for wine and grape analyses.IMG_0466 Currently, there are a lack of regional alternatives for these analyses for small and mid-size operations. For example, there is an interest in using New York State hops, but brewers want to know the concentration of alpha-acids, which will eventually lead to bitterness. Having a nearby lab to make these measurements with a fast turnaround time will help both regional growers and producers in the craft beer industry.

TT: What do you see to be some of the biggest challenges facing the Finger Lakes/New York State wine industry and the exploding craft beer industry? These industries are quite different, but perhaps there are some common challenges, or challenges unique to each industry.

GS: On the growing side, the humid conditions of our state take a toll in the form of fungal diseases for grapes, hops, and malting barley. In the wineries or breweries, smaller operations have the challenge that the winemaker/brewer may have wear a lot of hats: janitor, microbiologist, analytical chemist, accountant, sales and marketing guru, tasting room staff, human resources manager, and the like––all in the same day.

TT: What kinds of things are these industries getting right, in your opinion?

GS: I love the spirit of collaboration and openness among New York State winemakers and vineyard managers. They are almost invariably willing to help each other out with advice and accumulated knowledge, not to mention the occasional loan of equipment. For the most part, they recognize that their competition is with the rest of the wine world, not with each other, and that they need to work together to raise the profile of New York State wines. I don’t know the craft beer industry as well, but I expect that they have a similar attitude.

TT: It’s the end of the day and you want a drink. If it’s wine, what kind? If it’s beer, do you prefer the flavours and aromas of malt, or are you a “hophead”?

GS: Right now, since it’s late summer, I like refreshing and not too heavy. So, lower alcohol, crisp, balanced. So, for beer that means Kölsch and well-made Pilsner-type lagers; for wine, that may mean Riesling or dry rosé. Lots of malt and hops and oak and dense fruit and high alcohol have their place . . . just not right now.

TT: Are you able to sit down and just enjoy a glass of wine or beer without thinking of the chemical compounds, or without critiquing the flaws?

GS: That can be an occasional problem, especially if we’ve been focusing on faults in class. What I’ve learned to do is if I am really trying to enjoy wine or beer, I will buy a product type that I know nothing about. That way, I don’t the run the risk of getting too critical!

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Related Tempest Articles in the Industry Series

How To Become a Beer Liaison: An Interview with Genesee’s Sean Coughlin

Beeronomics: An Interview with Trey Malone

Further Reading/Viewing

Gavin Sacks featured on NPR/PRI’s Science Friday (January 2014)

Beer Judging Certification Program (BJCP)

BJCP Beer Fault List

Cicerone Certification Program

Images

Cornell clock tower: F.D. Hofer

Gavin Sacks: Cornell Department of Food Science (CALS)

New York State Wine Regions: www.grapesandgrainsnyc.com

Gewürztraminer in Mendocino: F.D. Hofer

Vineyard near Keuka Lake, NY: F.D. Hofer

Beer Flavour and Aroma Wheel: www.beerflavorwheel.com

Hops at Climbing Bines, Senaca Lake, NY: F.D. Hofer

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©2014 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.