Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Triple Funky/Sour Rye Saison Tasting

Saison is dead, long live saison! For a style that has about as much cohesion as IPA these days, there are so many opinions on what saison is. Last week while I was in Brazil for a homebrewing conference, I spent many hours talking to two of my homebrew heroes: Drew Beechum and Denny Conn (authors of the fascinating book Experimental Homebrewing). Drew is one of the handful of people who deserve credit for popularizing saison's range since I started brewing in 2005, but he is suspect when it comes to adding Brett to the style.

BJCP seems to agree with Drew; with the 2015 Beer Style Guidelines they have given Brett’d saisons an explicit home in the American Wild Ale category’s Brett Beer sub-category (Belgian Specialty is gone!). Gordon Strong asked me to comment on American Wilds draft about a year ago, and I made the case that Brett has been isolated from several of the classic Belgian examples. Too much Brett and I agree the peppery-spice is overwhelmed, but I love a touch of funk in the style! His counterargument was that it is not intentionally part of many modern Belgian saisons, and breaking the funky versions out makes both entering and judging easier.

American Wild Ale is a new home for the sort of weird funky/sour beers that encompass most of what I brew. Clearly I need an edge after most of my sours scored in the mid-30s at the National Homebrewers Competition (my gueuze and cherry brown were knocked for being too sour, my lemon Berliner for not being sour enough). My general goal in commenting was to make the target balance and drinkability, rather than rewarding the sharpest or classic-Brett-forward beers.

This funky/tart rye saison was brewed with a fellow government employee during the great furlough of 2013. We split the batch three ways and pitched various microbes (mostly from the dregs of homebrewed saisons). I wanted to taste the influence of such a small amount of bugs compared to the primary yeast (a blend of White Labs WLP585 Belgian Saison III and WLP568 Belgian Style Saison Ale Yeast Blend).

Left: Dregs from Funky Dark Saison #4 Middle: B. nanus and B. naardenensis Right: Two Bootleg Biology Pithos isolates.

Rye Saison Tasting - Three Ways

Appearance – Three seemingly identical beers. Clear muted-yellow, with delicate dense white heads. The sudden burst of rain didn't help retention.

Funky Dark #4 – Lambic-like. Musty-dusty with some lemon rind.
Nanus/Naardenensis – The fruitiest, but also some rubber band.
Bootleg Biology Pithos Isolates – Mild basement funkiness, while retaining the most peppery saison character of the three.

FD4 – The most acidic, more American Wild than Brett saison. Luckily the acidity is tangy, lactic, really bright. Lots of white wine (despite the lack of wine, grapes, or oak).
N/N – The least acidic and mildest funk. The fruit is more orchard than citrus.
Pithos – Mild citrusy tartness. Dry, earthy, but lacks depth.

Mouthfeel – All three are all pretty similar, firm carbonation (perfect for a pale/funky beers), medium-thin body. The proteins from the rye keep it from being watery, even after the carbonation calms down.

Drinkability & Notes – For my tastes, the dregs from Funky Dark #4 were the winner (itself WLP670 American Farmhouse, and Wyeast 5112 Brettanomyces bruxellensis). It has the balance of acidity, funk, fruit, and spice that I want in a beer. Rather than trying to recreate this beer exactly would be close to impossible, but I’d suggest that once you start bottling sour beers you’re happy with that you start using dregs from your homebrewed sours!


  1. I'd think Saison as a style should definitely have bugs and brett. "Farmhouse Ales" by Phil Markowski is clear on this and also the history/style chapter by Yvan De Baetz. Who else should define a Saison but the brewers of Saisons themselves from Belgium? The hoppy "Dupont" line of Saison is a more popular take on Saison but no more "correct" than a style with some brett funk and maybe some tartness. The book makes it clear that the style is very broad and open. I'm with Martyn Cornell and his disdain for the BJCP. Here they take a style which was invented by (Belgian Brewers) and they will be the final arbiter of what constitutes the style. No matter how sour, tart, or bretty a Fantome may get it is a Saison. If you brew a great tasting Saison along these lines you should be rewarded and not punished.

  2. Mike - Brazil was fun wasn't it? Had a great time with y'all!

    My main argument is that in looking back through the historical texts from the 1800's and all the way up to De Clerck - the only mention I've been able to discover was given to me by Randy that talked about the Liege beer brewed "en saison" as double strength. So I suspect there's an added bit of romanticism to the legends we're told and recounted in Farmhouse. Yvan does mention in the opening to his chapter some of this difficulty.

    Also, I tend to never trust interviews with brewers about history. Most of the romantic stories we've been told on a great many styles have been created by brewers. :)

    Not that I mind legends - not one single bit. They're good fodder for the bar and inspiration for the brewery.

    For the BJCP guidelines, what I had suggested was that the Brett character was probably left out to make a clear delineation with the the Wild beer category. I also tend to the belief that many brewers out there making Saisons with Brett are really making Bretts with Saison. I've had very few homebrewed examples that I feel strike the right balance.

    in truth, what I would have done if I had my druthers about the Saison guidelines was include a light brett character that doesn't dominate the yeast character in reflection of the modern style and created a separate Farmhouse category to capture the truly funky creations that some brewers like to put together and the wider world of European Farmhouse brewing.

  3. That makes sense Drew. I guess there must be a hardline drawn since maybe they would overlap in styles. My gripe with the BJCP styles is that they would lead to certain smugness if I may use the term. We see it in people reviewing beers and saying things like "not true to style" or doesn't taste like a Saison when in fact they are drinking a real Saison. Even without the Brett/bug question people still say certain beers are not "Saisons". Saison Silly comes to mind. Brewery was founded 1850 and we have people commenting how Saison Silly is "not to style". Bugs me really.

  4. Wait? What? People using guidelines as a ruler to smack people with? Particularly homebrewers! Never! :)

  5. Brazil was a blast, and getting to hang out with you and Denny was the octopus on the rice!

    For me, beer style guidelines should focus on what the style is today. Unless it is describing an explicitly historic style. For example, English IPA commonly had Brett in the 19th century, but that isn't part of the guidelines (and I'm fine with that).

    For saison, I look at many of winners in the GABF category and I see beers with Brett (Boulevard Saison Brett, Lavery Liopard Oir, McKenzie Vautour etc.). If it was only American breweries adding Brett to saisons I could see splitting them, but there are Brett strains on the market isolated from Belgian saisons.

    I like the idea of allowing light Brett character in the style, because you are right that the more aggressive phenols can quickly disrupt the classic peppery yeast character that defines the style.

    In general I'm for broader more inclusive styles that encourage creativity rather than conformity.

  6. Mike, do you think with the nanus that the rubber band character will age out or change? I like the description of the fruitiness you gave. Maybe nanus blended with other cultures would yield the fruitiness without the rubber band?

  7. Who knows where the rubber came from! I didn't get it in either the Nanus or Naardenensis in bottle conditioning or a 100% ferment previously. May have just been a weird synergy between them and the primary yeast.

  8. I've just now been able to start enjoying my own dregs. A month ago I bottled my first sour with my own dregs. The mother beer is fantastic, and this one tasted fantastic at bottling. Various lacto strains, the gigayeast sour saison stain, Brett l, and my dregs. Can't wait to try it!

    1. I should add that the mother beer was made with dregs built up from jester king. They got some mighty powerful bugs. Mighty powerful!

  9. Excellent! Sounds like the start of a wonderful house culture!