Tinted Shorts: Mort Subite, original Gueuze, 4.5%

"there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics, but enough of the farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts are present."
“there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics, but enough of the farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts are present.”

Lowlander Grande Café, London, June 2014

I’m fascinated by spontaneous fermentation. Can there be a stronger link in any food or drink we consume today with the beginnings of civilization; the beginnings of domestication and agriculture? I also find it fascinating that as a brewing method it has only survived in Payottenland in Belgium (at least until recently). Is it because allowing the wort to cool in the attic space, open to the elements is a mucky and time consuming way of doing things? Is it the simple hit-and-miss nature of it all?   Is it the end result – uncarbonated lambics – that are too limited in appeal and there variants, Gueuze, Kriek, Frambozen, Faro too time consuming, too tricky to master?

I thought about these questions as I sipped my Mort Subite Original Gueuze in Lowlander this week. It came in a natty little 25cl bottle which, at 4.5% ABV, was just right for the time. On pouring it was a burnished Chesterfield brown with visible strings of carbonation firing up form around the base of the glass. The head was open and fine, leaving lacing diaphanous and sheer, not the clumpy lines of mixed gas draught beer. There’s a marked (appley?) fruitiness in this gueuze and to sip, a gentle sweet wineyness too (hints of orange muscat dessert wine?); there’s none of the agricultural astringency of some lambics – perhaps not enough in fact – but sufficient farmhouse aroma to know that wild yeasts have been working their magic. It’s not a classic Gueuze by any means; but for the time and place it was smooth, approachable and sufficiently interesting.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014

Five Saisons in Four Days

shareAn iridescent spark of blue flairs across the eyeline, darting this way then that, low to the water. Lazy pendulums of willow imperceptibly sway as the damselflies dart fitfully to and fro between its branches. Pull back. The brook snakes through the field as we view it from afar now, curvily cutting the crossing spurs of meadow-backed hills, the sun breaking its beams through a cloud dappled sky. And afar, smoke wafts slowly from the brick chimney of a low slung farmhouse.

Close in. The farm squares up across a cobbled courtyard, rounded and glossed from years of boots and hooves. On one side the farmhouse, sage green windows, grey tiled roof. On the other, a single storey run with broad arched openings, marked out with round-edged blue bricks round nuzzling a strong keystone. Some are left open; some gated with ledged doors and knurled iron hinges. Steam drifts out from one entrance. Inside there’s a mess of brewing vessels; pipes, old staves and a skittering of rusting farm machinery, repurposed, parts. Wood staved vessels, one broad and shallow, others taller, dumpier, glisten with the perspiration of a brew in progress. In the loft, a shallow coolship, battered and tempered with age is the source of the steam. Through a gap, under a flaking beam are barrels of different sizes, chalk marked and dusty. Alongside shelves and shelves of cork stoppered bottles, waiting.

My idyll was just that. A dream, never to be discovered, never acted upon. The beers would be rustic: quenching yet punchy; refermented for a sprtizy effervesence, grassy to smell and with a lingering green hop. Then Saisons discovered me. These golden, rural Wallonian beers, dry, hoppy, aged, musty had been off my radar as all but a whisper, unheard. Typified as a beer style hard to pin down: its agricultural roots, the word of mouth, hand me down archiving of recipes had left them in the shadows of consciousness. But of late, they have burst out, their popularity in the States beginning to be mimicked here. And these are the beers closest in reality to my dream, yet with spicy, modern twists.

It started in that most un-rural of places, The Euston Tap. On draught; on the blackboard; in the fridge: Saisons. I ordered a Brew By Numbers (BBN) Nelson Sauvin Saison. At 6%, it’s hardly a Summer quencher in strength, but to taste: oof! A splintering bosh of grapefruit fizzing out of the glass. Cloudy like a Wit, there was sour character in the palate and a woody, puckering, lingering dryness that sits on the middle of your tongue. Refermented, the palate was sparkling, promoting a criss-cross illustration on the inside of the glass. Eyes now open but back in the stix, the Saison spotting season evaporated, until a rare sighting in Tesco of all places; their Revisionist Saison, brewed by Marston’s. After the tour de force of the BBN Nelson Sauvin Saison, my expectations were low. Yet, the beer has merit, with a dungy, herbal nose and a slightly background toffee character. An appetising, deep gold with a moderate head and modest carbonation. The taste was clear, dry and hop forward but muted given that it’s dry hopped. But it’s the lack of refermentation, of ageing, of dryness, that makes this more a pale ale than a layered, complex Saison.

The journey continued. In Manchester, I found two more Brew By Numbers: Saison Citra (5.5%) and Motueka & Lime (5%). The Citra was fresh, green and bright with melon and grapefruit. An intense natural carbonation, capped by a tight pure white head. To taste, all citrusy and again, bone dry and puckering. The Motueka was even more pungent: limey with lemon peel; with sour lime in the after taste that grabbed your throat in a play-fight way. Stunning beers. Stunning, yet somehow, these are Saisons that have moved to town. That are more cultured, arty, sophisticated, urbane. I wanted to go back to the farm. After some time I found Saison Dupont – the seminal Wallonian farmhouse beer. The aroma is heady: beguiling, dry, yeasty. It invites you back before you begin. To the eye, clumpy sediment from refermentation means a fine but visible carbonation that runs and runs that cleanses the palate and rewards in equal measure. It’s 6.5% yet drinks well below this with a low key bitterness balancing it all out. I noted down, ‘Simply, one of the most balanced and rewarding beers I’ve drunk’. And so it seems, that dream, that brick farm brewery, nestling in the rolling countryside is perhaps, no dream after all.

© Beer Tinted Spectacles, 2014