Saison Liaison: Iron Hill Brewery Saison
Enjoyed on 11/7/2011
Brewery: Iron Hill Brewery
Location: Wilmington, DE
Presentation: 750 ml brown bottle, corked and caged.
From the Web:
2008 GABF Gold Medal
A classic Belgian-style farmhouse ale; unfiltered, bright and light-bodied. The yeast gives an earthy, fruity and spicy character with a refreshing finish.
OG: 1.057; ABV: 5.5%
Beer Advocate: B+ (3.86)
Rate Beer: 86 (3.36)
Music Accompaniment: Alexander Turnquist – Hallway of Mirrors
When I first really started putting deep thought into what my future brewpub would be like I naturally used what I knew as a starting point. I began to mentally archive the places that I had visited, that had inspired me. The most obvious of all, in those early days, was my home town brew pub. The one that I had been to more than any other, by a long shot. It’s called Iron Hill and it’s in West Chester, PA. Iron Hill now has 8 or 9 pubs in PA and DE, but the WC locale was the second to open after Newark. It’s a beautiful space. Everything about it exemplifies class. But, ultimately, it’s the beer that makes it what it is. The beer is world fucking class. And for the geekiest amongst us, the bottled reserves are straight up boner inducing (blame Hank Moody). This be one of them, hardware in tow.
Iron Hill’s Saison pours a very pale, golden hue. Without a doubt, on the low end of the SRM scale for the style. The liquid is hazy but I can still faintly make out objects behind the glass. The head that rises is… what else but a pure white? It is built on extremely fine bubbles and though it’s girth fades quite quickly, it never wholly topples due to the heavy effervescence rising from the depths. Must I verbalize, bottle conditioning is evident. The beauty of the world’s finest hand crafted lace pales in comparison to the elegant caking left behind on the glass as the head and liquid recede. A swirling of the tulip may erase the foamy art on it’s walls but it livens the froth immaculately, like a cauldron reaching boil. Simply put, it’s a sight to see.
With no surprise, what first penetrates my inhale is a waft most steeped in Belgian yeast. Fruity esters stir my thoughts to meditative strolls between trees in the farmhouse orchard. Green apple dominates early evaluations, which slowly lead into banana notes, quickly followed by citrus and herbal hop aromatics. It’s clean behind the yeast and hops, with little malt derivatives.
I can smell the water, which has me slightly stymied. This is a low gravity beer with a very simple grain bill. The yeast and subtle hopping is all that this beer has to offer, but we must remember, those elements are what makes a true saison a saison. There is a mineraly aspect to the nose, which could be from the yeast, but it’s not typical of a Belgian strain. Whether it’s the water I smell or not, that’s what it makes me think of, and that’s kind of special in it’s own way.
Water is, after all, the largest component of beer. Water is different in every corner of the planet. Every beer you ever taste may have malts from Wisconsin or Germany or England, hops from Yakima or New York or Czech Republic, yeast from Oregon or San Diego, but always water from the earth about the brewery. The water is what makes the beer most unique to that exact brewery. It’s like the genetics of beer. Sure, some breweries treat their water for effect, or because they have to, but stop ruining my romantic water story!
The flavor is quite simple actually. The most notable aspect of the beer might be it’s mouthfeel, or lack there of. The beer is very thin and watery. There simply isn’t a lot of grain involved. Is there anything other than pilsner malt involved? Doubtful. The bitterness, by comparison, is quite striking. I can’t recall the last time I drank a saison and thought so significantly about the bitterness. The balance is clearly leaning away from malty, but there is very little recognizable hop flavor either.
So we are left with the obvious flavor contributor, the almighty Belgian yeast. Here, even that is subdued. It’s much more lively in the nose. I’d suspect that this beer fermented at a lowish temperature. Lower than most, but possibly in a range not unlike a true, historical farmhouse ale temperature (brewed in the cold months for summer consumption, pre-refrigeration). This makes me curious as to what strain they are using, as most require a higher temperature to complete fermentation. I’ll save that bit of nerddom for the homebrew forums.
Ultimately, it’s grassy and earthy with very subtle lemon peel and apple skin notes. Plain, white bread comes to mind, and the sensation of falling deep into a dark well.
This brew is as dry as a sleeve of Triscuits, thus… righteously to spec. I’m left with the feeling that I was just tackled into the cold, hard ground during a game of Autumnal backyard football. I’m slowly rising from the turf, spitting grass, dirt and blood. The hop bitterness and highly attenuative yeast have put the smack down.
Am I refreshed? Well, it’s not like I’m trying to chug chocolate milk after a hard day in the fields, but that bone dry finish makes it hard to not reach for some more permanent fix to my cottonmouth.
This example may be the most pure American attempt at the most historical farmhouse ale style. Think about it. Would a beer that was brewed solely for the purpose of refreshing farm workers in the summer be full of specialty grains and highly aromatic hops? Would it be built on anything other than a bare bones recipe? It’s doubtful. I may have just consumed a beverage nearing an exact replica of what Belgian farmers consumed many, many years ago. The geek within that craves flavorville may be feeling uninspired, but the geek within that respects beer history allows each sip to act as a tool of transport. I’m right there in the fields, and I thank Iron Hill for paving the way.