Dan Tapper on what to expect from the new Borough Market saison: a unique limited-edition beer brewed in collaboration with The Beak, Partizan and Organic Life
“Most have a sunny orange colour, explosive carbonation producing an impressive rocky head, bright, spicy, fruity aromatics, and a dry, slightly tart finish,” says Garrett Oliver in his seminal book The Brewmaster’s Table. “Expect an exquisite balance of stunning complexity and sheer thirst-quenching drinkability—impossibly delicious.” Though it might sound as though Garrett is describing a fine champagne (save the colour, perhaps), the world-renowned food writer is in fact referring to a lesser-known but equally iconic tipple: saison, a style of beer hailing from the flat farmlands of Wallonia, the French-speaking region of southern Belgium.
This enigmatic ale’s origins are reflected in its name. ‘Saison’ is French for season and refers to the early 18th-century farming practice of brewing a one-off beer during the winter months, when the temperature is more favourable to fermentation. The resulting beers not only generated additional income for their makers, but also served to rejuvenate seasonal workers the following summer. Though nobody is alive to tell us what these original beers tasted like—sadly, there are also no surviving original recipes—we do know they were strong enough to be ‘laid down’ for months at a time and thirst-quenching enough to refresh weary farmhands.
Far from being a burden, the uncertainty surrounding what constitutes a ‘real’ saison has left the doors wide open for modern brewers wishing to produce their own interpretations of the style. As such, it’s now possible to sample all manner of wildly exciting versions, including batches aged in wine barrels and infused with herbs, fruits and spices, ranging from merlot grapes and melon to orange peel and thyme. However, almost all of the greatest examples boast at least three things in common: their hops, yeast and malt.
Crisp lingering finish
The beating heart of the Borough Market saison is its yeast: WY3711. Despite its rather unromantic name, the strain is believed to be derived from Belgium’s most famous saison producer, Brasserie Dupont, which has been brewing in the province of western Hainaut since 1844. Fermented at a relatively warm temperature, the strain gives the beer its trademark Belgian flavour profile, characterised by upfront aromas of clove and coriander, as well as its crisp lingering finish.
Authentic saisons make use of so-called ‘noble’ hops, referring to central European varieties with low bitterness and high essential oil content. However, not wanting to stick to the rules too precisely, Borough Market has instead incorporated a classic English variety in its beer called fuggles, grown and harvested in the heart of the Market itself. Interestingly, this variety boasts similar characteristics to these traditional European hops, including an earthy, gooseberry-like aroma with flavours of green tea and marmalade. The reason: fuggles is a direct descendent of hops introduced to England by Flemish weavers in the 1500s.
Though it is easy for malt to be overshadowed by its showier siblings, hops and yeast, the grain used in this saison is central to its character. Around 70 per cent of the ‘grist’ (grain that has been separated from its chaff) is pale barley malt, giving the beer its golden yellow hue, with a small addition of rye adding a touch of spiciness, much in the same way as it would a loaf of bread. However, we’ve also incorporated an unusually high amount of flaked wheat and oats, two ingredients well-known for their ability to add body and increase mouth-feel—this is also why you might also notice a slight haze to the beer.
When it comes to the question of what to pair this saison with, it pays to consider that the beer has been aged over generous amounts of bergamot-rich earl grey tea from Borough trader Organic Life, resulting in a gentle acidity, some tannins and a slight lemony bitterness. This makes it a perfect partner with battered white fish, moules frites, crab cakes and soft young cheeses. You’ll also find it works with pork in all its various guises, but most spectacularly with scratchings, scotch eggs and Lincolnshire sausages. Vegan or vegetarian? Then try it with a tofu thai green curry, or creamed mushrooms and fresh parsley on a slice of toasted sourdough.
But don’t let this stop you from getting adventurous. “If I were forced to choose one style to drink with every meal for the rest of my life,” adds Garrett, “saison would have to be it. Saison is not just versatile—it’s downright promiscuous.”