MOVIES & BOOZE: Fancy a beer over the weekend?

Dean McGuinness joins Sean Moncrieff...

Our resident beer expert Dean McGuinness reviews two farmhouse ales...

Craft has become a term that is used so much that it is in danger of becoming meaningless. Recently, I saw a major fast-food outlet (think Golden Arches!) presenting in their ads that they were ‘hand-crafting’ their burgers, and I knew that the members of the marketing of population of Ireland had truly gone over the edge. Some people have moved to using the word ‘artisan’ instead.

Today’s two beers are from a beer style family that is truly artisan. The style Saison, or Farmhouse Ale is a style of beer that has grown out of small breweries located in farmhouses in the South and West of Belgium (Walloonia). The two beers for today are Surfine – a classic Belgian saison – and Sheep Stealer – which is an interpretation of the farmhouse ale style by Black Donkey Brewing in Roscommon, Ireland.

Saisons and Farmhouse Ales –

There has been a tradition of brewing ‘farmhouse ales’ in the North of France and the South and West of Belgium (Walloonia). In France, these beers are known as ‘Bieres de Garde’ and in Belgium, the term ‘saison’ is applied to the style. In Ireland, we are a little bit more familiar with ‘saison’, having a greater affinity with Belgian beer than with French beer in this country.

Saison is a style family that owes its definition to its place of brewing more than the beers’ characteristics. This is a slightly obscure way of saying that the saison style family is more defined by where the beer comes from than by the characteristics of the beer. Like ‘Trappiste’, which is essentially defined by the fact that it has to be brewed within the walls of a Trappiste monastery, and which can envelope sub-styles ranging from standard alcohol ‘patersbier’ to darker and stronger ‘quadrupels’, taking in a variety of styles in between, ‘Saison’ is defined by the fact that it comes from a farmhouse brewery, and can cover a range of sub-style interpretations under this broad style family.

When brewing saisons, farmers would typically use ingredients that they had to hand – their own-grown barley, often malted by the farmers themselves, and sometimes combined with other grains (oats, wheat, spelt). Typically, saisons are amber in colour, though darker saisons are possible.

Understanding saisons is best achieved by looking at their history and origins. Brewed as farmhouse ales, these beers were constrained in terms of when they could be brewed. Through the early 1900’s, farmhouse breweries would brew this style of beer during the time of year when the workload was lower (typically November/December – after harvest – or March – after planting season). The beers were brewed to be available to slake the thirst of the farm workers during the hot summer / autumn seasons when these workers would be looking for refreshment while engaging in physical labour. Given the need to store the beer from the time of brewing to the time of drinking, these beers needed to survive for a longer time than many other beers brewed to be drunk soon after they were ready. The style encompasses beers that use large quantities of hops to make use of the preservative qualities of this ingredient, to beers that have a sour or funky element to them, achieved from a mixed or wild fermentation. In both cases, the brewer was seeking a character to the beer so that it was still an appealing drink when it came to being drunk by the farmhands in the summertime. While some saisons were brewed with a residual sweetness in times past, most all saisons currently available are relatively dry as a result of the complexity of the yeast used in the beer’s fermentation.

Surfine –

Beer Style - Belgian Saison
Alcohol by Volume - 6.5% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Brasserie Duboisson
Brewed in - Pipaix, Belgium

‘Surfine’ is a word in French that means ‘sublime’ or ‘wonderful’ – a great name for this truly delicious Belgian Saison. As a style, Belgian Saison is quite broad. Given its origins with farmhouse breweries across Walloonia, and the tendencies of these breweries to brew their beer to their own quirky preferences, a wide range of variation is possible in the style. However, the essence of the modern saison is that it is typically a pale to amber beer that is complex, drinkable and refreshing, with a dry finish combining layers of flavours derived from Belgian yeasts. Surfine fits these broad parameters very well. But more particularly, this is an incredibly sophisticated beer that is very delicately balanced and layered in its character.

The aroma of Surfine combines fruit, spice and barnyard sweetness. Ripe banana, soft fruit (peach) and citrus combine with black pepper, chilli, coriander and clove and soft, sweet wet hay aromas. There is a floral honey sweetness that comes through on the aroma as well, and the contribution of complex Belgian yeast to this beer is unmistakeable. These aromas are layered – for me, the ripe banana came through first, with the other fruit and spice following afterwards; other people that joined me for the tasting found that the spice was up front, and the fruit character developed over time.

In the mouthfeel, Surfine is quite dry (the sweetness in the beer is primarily the suggestion of sweetness from some of the aromas in the beer, with very little residual sugar left in this well-attenuated beer). Carbonation is relatively high, giving a buzz on the palate. The dryness and spice in the flavour all combine with the buzz of carbonation to lift this beer in the mouthfeel, making it very bright and refreshing, despite the complexity of flavour.

Clove, chilli and black pepper from the Belgian yeast all develop to provide a certain amount of spice in the flavour, and this combines with ripe, yellow banana and juicy apricot/peach soft, stone fruit flavours. Coriander comes through as spice combined with bright citrus, and floral honey character combines with white pepper as the beer finishes.

A great saison should have layers of complexity, but above all, should be very well balanced. Surfine is this – the individual flavours can combine with eachother and not immediately apparent on the first taste. With each subsequent taste, different layers of flavour are revealed. Yet with all of this flavour complexity, the dry finish and buzz of carbonation in this (relatively light) 6.5% a.b.v. beer keeps the beer refreshing. Surfine is a beer that one could spend hours dissecting to identify multiple individual flavours, or can be drunk as a crisp refreshing beer with wonderful flavour, not having to worry about which aspect of that flavour is most appealing at any one time.

Sheep Stealer –

Beer Style - Irish Farmhouse Ale
Alcohol by Volume - 5.6% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Black Donkey Brewing
Brewed in - Roscommon, Ireland

Many Irish breweries have followed the American model – it almost feels like every Irish brewery feels it needs an American IPA, or at the very least, an American Pale Ale to qualify as a craft brewery. A small handful of Irish breweries have also followed other paths, and taken on brewing unusual styles. Black Donkey Brewing in Roscommon is one such brewery – and Sheep Stealer is their interpretation of the saison style – described as ‘Irish Farmhouse Ale’ on the label.

One would have to assume that the idea of a ‘Farmhouse Ale’ was not impossible in Ireland at the time when there were multiple breweries around the country. Just as research into the Saison style in Belgium is challenging, I am not aware of anybody who has taken on what would probably be an almost impossible task of identifying if there were farmhouse ales being brewed in Ireland. As such, brewing an ‘Irish Farmhouse Ale’ gives a brewery a certain level of licence – where ‘saison’ is already difficult to precisely define as a style, ‘Irish Farmhouse Ale’ is a style that one could argue is waiting to be defined by brewers willing to take on the challenge of interpreting it. Black Donkey has largely followed the influence of the Belgian Saison style with the character derived from the fermentation of this beer, but has used classic English hops to provide a floral counterbalance in the flavour.

Distinct funkiness in the form of leathery, goaty and sweet farmyard aromas are the first things that are presented to the nose, and combine with spice in the form of clove, black pepper and floral character. Fruit is present, but slightly secondary to the spiciness and funk, with light citrus coming through together with a certain amount of ripe banana. There is an almost lactic acidity that comes through on the palate. Sheep Stealer has a dry finish – well attenuated – and develops a significant level of carbonation during bottle conditioning. As such, the light body, dry character and zing of carbonation plays with the spiciness of the beer, lifting the beer on the palate. The balance in this beer is definitely towards spiciness, with a relatively low level of hop bitterness present, but background to the fermentation spice character. A certain amount of coriander comes through in the finish.

Craft beer is about creativity, and one would think that Irish Farmhouse Ale should be an obvious style for breweries to interpret. Despite this, very few Irish breweries have, with many other breweries taking their influence from America. This makes it all the more clever for Black Donkey to tackle this style, adding to the colour and diversity that is available in craft beer from Irish breweries.