Saison and Barleywine Tasting

In mid-April, I conducted a tasting flight of saisons, and finished with some barleywines paired with Stilton cheese. We were hosted at Sequoia Cafe (Guanghua Lu shop), and attended by the same participants of my holiday beer dinner, as well as Alain Leroux of the Taillan winery in Hebei.

As we waited for everyone to arrive, Frank chilled and opened up several bottles from his stock of Le Merle, which I had previously introduced at the aformentioned holiday beer dinner. Not a bad choice, considering I wanted to start with saisons anyway.

In order to compare the American interpretation (Le Merle) with the Belgian originals, I introduced what is widely considered the “standard bearer” of modern saisons – Saison Dupont. Brasserie Dupont is located in the Hainaut province of Belgium’s Wallonia region, the birthplace of the style. What is in some ways unique about Dupont’s beer is that it uses only Pilsner malt, two varieties of Goldings hops (Kent and Styrian), and their reknowned house yeast strain. Myriad other saisons attempt to recreate the complexity of beers like Saison Dupont with the use of more ingredients: either multiple malts or hops, multiple yeast strains, or the inclusion of actual spices, herbs and seasonings.

Unfortunately, the beer comes in green glass bottles, which makes it especially prone to skunking, by way of light damage. Indeed, there was a touch of this character perceptible in the bottle I presented – despite my having taken great pains to first purchase the beer directly from the case, and to thereafter keep it away from light (sunlight in particular) as much as possible. That said, everyone still enjoyed the beer.

While LeMerle adheres more closely to the classic parameters of the style, I wanted to further show some of the ingenuity of American craft brewing. For that, I chose Jack d’Or from Pretty Things, a small operation in my home state of Massachusetts. Dubbed a “Saison Americain” by the brewmaster Dann Paquette, its main distinguishing characteristic is the use of American hop varieties. This imparts citrus notes (such as grapefruit zest), with some hints of fresh pine. However, once again we stumbled into unfavorable circumstances – the bottle I brought was quite possibly infected, as the acidity of the beer was WAY off the mark from what I’m used to from this beer. Alas, a proper tasting of Jack d’Or would have to wait for another time…

Redemption began with the next beer in the lineup: J.W. Lees Harvest Ale 2002. In the same way that Dupont is the archetypal saison, Harvest Ale is today the classic English barleywine. Strong ales such as these barley “wines” were brewed for the aristocracy and the emergent merchant classes. They offered many of the qualities of port or sherry, but without the pesky supply interruptions arising from England’s wars with France or Spain. In fact, if you adhere to the food-pairing maxim of “what grows together, goes together”, there is arguably no better match for England’s “king of cheeses”: Stilton.

Fresh from a trip to the UK by Frank’s wife Jennifer, a huge chunk of the vaunted English blue cheese was now available at our table. And so everyone got their first taste of this match made in heaven. Boyce was the first to comment that he’d never smelled or tasted such characteristics in a beer before. Indeed, for most people, the idea of a richly sweet, nutty, fruity, alcoholic (11.5%) malt beverage is probably a completely unfathomable concept. That said, these particular bottles of the 2002 vintage (my personal favorite) were showing subtle signs of oxidation – first brought to attention by Alain, the resident winemaker amongst the group. Cellaring conditions will have an impact, just as in wine, and these particular bottles were acquired recently off a store shelf back in the US. Nonetheless, I still think the beer managed to open eyes and impress.  Dave said he’d never thought a beer could deliver the same qualities as a sweet wine.

Continuing along this path, I also featured two special bottles of JW Lees Harvest Ale, one aged in Calvados (apple brandy) casks, and the other in Lagavulin scotch whisky casks. These were from a newer 2006 vintage, and thus were fresher and thankfully more or less free of oxidation. Again, eyes were opened, eyebrows raised, and smiles abound. Frank (and Brandon?) especially liked the Lagavulin version, with its smoky, peaty notes.

For those who stayed all night long, I also opened a bottle of the 10th Anniversary Old Ale, from the Southampton Publick House of Long Island, New York.  Old ales and “stock ales” belong to the same family of strong English beers as barleywines.  But whereas barleywines tend to use the same paler malts of pale ales and bitters, old ales trend towards using darker malts such as those in brown ales.  Southampton’s version was a special bottling to commemorate their 10th anniversary, in 2006.  As tends to be the case with most American (re-)interpretations of classic European styles, this beer is hoppier and seems to also include some American hop varietals (giving pine resin notes).  Interestingly, Alain preferred the extra bitterness over the more prominent sweetness found in the JW Lees Harvest series.

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