Tag Archives: saison

It’s the Time of the Saison for Drinking

While the analogy is far from perfect, I look at saison in sort of the same way that Miles in the film Sideways looks at his beloved pinot noir. It’s a style I love, and part of that love is rooted in the fact that it’s a bit of an underdog, rarely seen and often under-appreciated.

It’s also a style that historically wasn’t really a style at all, but rather a name used to describe a variety of ales brewed for the workers at farms throughout Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region. In more recent times, Saison Dupont has come to be considered a standard bearer of the style – deservedly so, as it’s a fantastic beer – and the result has been a bit more predictability in terms of what you can expect from a beer that is tagged with the saison descriptor. Even so, it still remains a fairly flexible style, ranging from elegant examples with sweet and floral characteristics to more rustic versions that are tart and funky and at times almost lambic-like.

Saisons aren’t seen in Ontario often, in either domestic or imported form. Saison Dupont has made a couple of brief appearances at the LCBO, and Black Oak makes a nice one every summer, but otherwise, it takes trips, trades or travelling friends to get your hands on some.

The trio of saisons pictured above have all come to me via friends and colleagues over the past year or so, and after storing them in the stash for a while, I’ve cracked into all three of them recently. Here’s what I thought of them…

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I Heart Hopfenstark

As I mentioned in my infamous “Ass Sandwich” post a while back, one of the highlights of my trip to Montreal in February was meeting Fred Cormier of Microbrasserie Hopfenstark. It was a highlight not only because he’s a great guy with a lot of passion for beer, but also because he’s a very generous guy who gave me and my travelling companions a box of beer to bring home with us.

I went through my share of the goodies soon after returning to Toronto, and have intended to write something about them here ever since, but lack of time and organizational skills have caused a delay until now. Below are my tasting notes from the half-dozen bottles I tried, as originally written for RateBeer:

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The Very Beery Month Of May

Wow, nearly a month since my last post. That’s a long time, even for an irregular and inconsistent blogger like myself. Lotsa things have been keeping me busy – in fact, looking back at my social calendar for the last month, you could say that I’ve just been too busy drinking good beer (+ other things) and eating great food to write about any of it…

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Mixed Pack From Pennsylvania

A few weeks ago, through an odd series of events, I found myself in possession of a mixed case of beer from Pennsylvania. I’d tried a fair number of PA beers before, from breweries like Victory, Sly Fox and Weyerbacher, but this specially assembled collection contained an assortment from three breweries that I wasn’t very familiar with: Church Brew Works, Erie Brewing and Yard’s Brewing.

As is usually the case with these things, the beers ranged from quite good to not-so-much, and I thought I’d share quick round-up of my thoughts on the 11 new beers I tried.

Church Brew Works


I’ve long wanted to visit the Church Brew Works brewpub, which is fittingly located in a former church in Pittsburgh, mainly because the photos I’ve seen of the place look absolutely stunning, but also because I’ve been curious about their beer line-up since I had a chance to try their Oatmeal Stout on tap at Cole’s in Buffalo a couple of years ago. So I was happy to find these four bottles in the package, although unfortunately, most of them ended up letting me down.

Pious Monk Dunkel is the best of the four, having a perfectly on-style clear brown-amber colour with a small head, and mild but inviting aroma of toasted malt, bread and tobacco leaf. The flavour is mild as well, but also good, with hints of coffee, smoke, toasted malt, and a short but pleasant bitter finish. Simple, but well made and satisfying.

A bit less impressive is the Pipe Organ Pale Ale. It looks nice, with a sunset copper-gold colour and a small white head. But the aroma is odd, holding a faint caramel note that was overwhelmed by overripe (i.e. slightly rotten) fruit and something sharp that I can’t quite place. The body is moderately carbonated with a medium mouthfeel that gets a bit sticky as it warms, and the flavour is as suggested by the aroma – caramel malt, pungent fruit, and that sharp edge – followed by a moderately bittered finish. This is puzzling beer that I suspect might’ve been mildly infected, but not in a familiar sort of way.

Thunderhop Double IPA seemed promising – for this hophead, it’s hard to go wrong with an 8% double IPA – but it’s ultimately a disappointment. As with the Pipe Organ, it looks nice in the glass – golden-amber with a moderate white head – but the overwhelming aroma of citric hops with a pineapple juice background is too much even for me. The flavour is equally unbalanced, with strong, acidic hops that have very little malt to back them up. I’m totally cool with hop-bombs as long as beer has a strong backbone for the hops to play against. In this case, the beer is just too thin and flabby, leaving the sharp hops with nothing to hang on.

Finally, the real stinker of the bunch is Celestial Gold. I got nervous when I saw the very pale gold colour with a small white head that disappeared quickly. And my fears were proven to be well-founded by the grainy malt aroma with a slight vegetal note, the thin body with heavy carbonation, and the flavour that starts sweet before being overtaken by an unpleasant overcooked vegetable undertone, and an unbalanced bitterness in the finish. Supposedly a German-style Pilsner, but it seemed to me to be a simple mainstream lager, and a poorly made one at that.

Erie Brewing


Like the Celestial Gold, Erie’s Presque Isle Pilsner is a pretty lacklustre take on the style, with a very light golden golden colour, a small white head, and an aroma of light malt, subtle hops, and an unpleasant note of cooked corn that builds as it warms up. Thankfully, the corn doesn’t come though in the flavour, but there not much else there either. The best I can say is that it finishes clean, with some mild Saaz notes, but it’s not much of a pilsner.

Mad Anthony’s APA is a good step up from the lager. It pours a clear golden-orange with a small but persistent snow white head, and the aroma is pleasant and balanced, with fresh-smelling malt and some slightly citric hops. The flavour is nice, following on the aroma with a good balance of sweet malt and tangy hops, and a good finish. The body is a bit thin, but the crispness makes it an enjoyable quaffer.

From there, things take a bit of a dip with the Railbender Ale. The appearance is OK, with a clear light copper colour and a small white head. The aroma is a fairly bland combination of malt and tobacco leaves, with a slight sharpness building as it warms. The flavour starts with sweet malt, slightly sugary off the top, developing some caramel notes in the middle, and a moderately hopped finish with some alcohol warmth. Not bad, not great, just – meh.

Yard’s Brewing


These looked to be the most interesting beers in the collection, and given the generally average to poor showing made by the other two breweries, I was hoping they’d prove to be the best ones as well. I was especially glad to see the Saison, a style that I’m a big fan of, and thankfully, it ended up being a pretty solid example. I was a bit worried by the very light, clear gold appearance, but the aroma has enough orange, coriander, and herb notes to keep me interested. The body is light and crisp, and the flavour is decent – a bit light off the top, but some pleasant candi sugar and spice notes come through in the middle, and the herbal hops wrap it up nicely.

The Presidential ales intrigued me as well, with the promise of old-tyme recipes bringing to mind the Samuel Adams Brewer Patriot Collection that came out a couple of years ago. In fact, looking back at my tasting notes for the George Washington Porter in that Sam Adams collection, there seems to be a fair bit of similarity between it and Yard’s General Washington Tavern Porter. The Yard’s brew is ruby-brown with a small off-white head, and has a very roasty and malty aroma with some hints of chocolate, burnt toffee and molasses. The flavour is excellent, very full and toasty off the top, with molasses and toffee sweetness coming in quick, followed by an interesting plum-like tartness. Very nice.

As for the Thomas Jefferson Tavern Ale, it couldn’t be more different from the Traditional Honey Ginger Ale that represented the third president in the Sam Adams pack. In fact, it comes across as a fairly modern US strong ale. Not that I’d complaining, of course. The appearance is a slightly hazy golden-amber with a small head, and the aroma of pine and grapefruit with hints of caramel and toast is solid. So is the flavour, with vibrant and fresh hops taking the lead in the flavour, but allowing enough caramel malt to come though for balance.

Finally, the Yard’s IPA was another winner for me. Not the most unique or exciting IPA around, but still a good one, with the aroma having a good balance of sweet caramel and citrus, and the flavour being well-balanced and enjoyable, with a sweet beginning, and a pleasing hop bite in the finish.

So, while I can’t make a complete assessment based on three or four beers from each brewery, the edge definitely goes to Yard’s based on my limited sampling, followed by Erie in second place, and Church Brew Works well in the rear. And putting them all up against the other PA breweries, none of them come close to most of what I’ve tried from Victory and Weyerbacher. But still, it’s nice to get a taste of the local brews from other places. Hopefully, I’ll get to try more of what the state has to offer, maybe as part of a future Philly Beer Week.

Beer of the Week – Black Oak Summer Saison

This article was originally written in August 2007 for the food & drink website Taste T.O., and republished here in October 2011 (but back-dated to match the original publication date) after Taste T.O. was shut down and taken offline.

Back in the days before refrigeration and pasteurization, all beer was a fresh and perishable product that was at the mercy of the local climate and other factors. Different styles were brewed at different times of year depending on the weather and surrounding environment, and many styles were made with the intention to be set aside and drunk at various points throughout the year, with alcohol levels (stronger beers tend to last longer) and the amount of hops (a natural preservative in addition to being a bittering agent) varied accordingly.

As recently as 20 years ago, most of these traditional beer styles were close to extinction due to the global popularity of bland, mass-produced lagers. But thanks to the explosion of craft brewing in North America and elsewhere, as well as the rediscovery of the handful of Old World breweries that are stilling hanging on, many have been brought back from the brink and revived, much to the delight of adventurous beer drinkers worldwide. One of these styles is saison.

A farmhouse ale from the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium, saisons were traditionally brewed in the autumn or winter and held for consumption by farm workers during the late summer harvest. A close cousin to bière de garde (“beer for keeping”), a style born just over the border in France, the original saisons were generally relatively low in alcohol in order to not knock the workers for a loop, but also high in hops to help the beer last the months in storage. Wheat was often used in addition to the pale malts, giving the beer a refreshing quality not unlike a weisse or witbier.

In recent times, the most well-known example of the saison style is Saison Dupont, brewed since 1844 at Belgium’s Brasserie Dupont. This world classic has made brief appearances at the LCBO in the past, but not recently. However, we’ve been lucky enough to have a locally-brewed saison available for the past couple of summers thanks to the efforts of Ken Woods and his team at Oakville’s Black Oak Brewery.

Black Oak Summer Saison is quite traditional in some respects, particularly the relatively low alcohol level of 4.1%, and the inclusion of wheat in the recipe. But it also deviates slightly from the typical saison with the addition of corriander and orange zest. While spicing of saisons in olden times wasn’t unheard of, it was rare.

Still, this is one case where the break from tradition can’t really be faulted, as the results are fantastic. After pouring a hazy orange colour, the aroma and flavour of this beer are like a wheat beer on steroids, with big notes of yeast, wheat, citrus, apricot and spice. The hops remain hidden in the aroma and the front end of the flavour, but they come through in the finish with a nice peppery bite.

The only bad thing about this beer is the fact that it’s little hard to get your hands on. Bottles are only available for purchase at the brewery ($12.25/6×355 mL), and it’s on a limited number of draught lines at a few bars and restaurants around town. If you’re extra lucky, you might stumble across a place serving the limited “marmalade edition”, which is a cask version finished with a healthy dose of fresh citrus peel. Failing that, you’ll be able to find the regular version at the Golden Tap Awards, the Ontario craft beer awards and mini-festival taking place this Saturday, August 18th at beerbistro.