Pizza Port - SPF 8 Saison
Malts:Pilsner Malt, Roasted Wheat, Briess Flaked Barley, Weyerman Caramel Malt, Weyerman Melanoiden Malt, Special B, Debittered Black Malt
Hops:Amarillo, First Gold, German Tettnanger
There was an American comedy movie called "If it's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium". It was about a busload of Americans doing Europe, one of those trips where you do 14 countries in 10 days, and fly low over another three. But that movie also summed up the image that Belgium had, people were not quite sure where Belgium was or why one would want to go there. Now, Belgium has a lot of nice qualities. It has diamonds in Antwerp, and wonderful food all over the country, especially in the region called the Ardennes. It has fantastic flamboyant Flemish architecture. And most of all, it's got wonderful beer, and people really didn't know about the beer. At the risk of seeming immodest, people didn't know about the beer of Belgium until I started writing about it. Even some Belgians didn't know about it. One leading beer critic in Belgium is on record as saying that Michael Jackson really taught us about our own beers.
One thing I try to do is explain Belgian beer, because if you don't know what to expect there is such a range of strange flavors. People in the northern part of Belgium, for example, the Flemish part where they speak a version of Dutch, don't really know much about the beer in the south of the country where they speak French, even though the whole country is only about as big as Ohio. And there are some local specialties that are very local, to say, one valley, or one city. An example of that is a style of beer called Saison. You'll see that term at the top of the SPF 8 label. Saison is French for season, and it refers in beer to a specific season, to the season of summer. A Belgian Saison is a beer for the summer, but sometimes it's pretty strong. You would think of a beer for the summer as being light, low in malt and low in alcohol, not to blow your head off. But Belgian Saisons are very often 5.5 to 8.5%. They are less strong, of course, than extremely strong beers of 12.5%, but they are also quite light bodied. There is not a linear connection between alcohol content and body, though people think there is. Beer can be quite crisp and refreshing, but still big in alcohol and it can remove your socks. You need to be careful about beers like that.
When I wrote about Belgian Saisons, people said that it was not really a style, that I just kind of made it up. That wasn't true, as I had detected 5 or 6 beers that seemed in a very distinct style, and they all had Saison in their name so I used it as a style description. The ones that I found were mostly from the Hainaut province, and they do have certain characteristics. They tend to have a rather distinctive amber color, and are crisp and fruity without that being dominant. It's a refreshing style of beer with quite a lot of alcohol, quite a lot of presence, a lot of personality, but then a crisp, cleansing finish. Yes, there is a style, and yes, I think I helped to keep that style alive, and it did not become extinct like Oatmeal Stout and Imperial Stout, which have come back. But Saison never quite vanished.
Eventually, as had happened with many other beer styles that I had written about through Europe, Americans started making Saison beers. And again, as has happened constantly, when Americans start to make the beer they are so keen to do it in a way as to make it authentic that they very often make a better Saison than the Belgians did.
This Saison from Tomme Arthur's brewhouse is powerful stuff, it could actually send you to sleep, especially since the hop is very soporific. Tomme certainly is one of my nominees for celebrity brewer. He brews in a couple of breweries just outside of San Diego, and he really goes for very distinct and traditional styles. If you are lucky, you can buy some at his breweries. What we have this month is one of those styles, which he calls SPF. I've heard of an IPA, and ESB, but what is an SPF? Ah, yes, a Sun Protection Factor. In Belgium they seldom worry about the sun, it's not a very sunny place in the planetary aspect, though sunny in the beer department. Now Southern California is sunny all year round, where they really don't have seasons, and it's summer all the time so you need sun protection factor. Some may need to absorb that orally. I would go for this one intravenously if I could do so.
It's got a very chocolatey flavor. That sounds rich, sweet, dessert beer. Could be, but it's got a crisp sharpness to it. I kind of imagine tasting this beer at an old-fashioned ice cream parlor, a soda fountain, on a summer's day, having a nice big bowl with 3 scoops - no, 6 scoops - of ice cream in it, with a silver spoon. This is the key to what a Saison beer is about, a refreshing beer that is nonetheless quite big in alcohol and is also very complex. People talk about summer beers as light, not a whole lot of hops or malt, highly carbonic, and it begins to sound pretty boring. This is emphatically not a boring beer. It can be quenching, refreshing, but it's packed with different flavors. This great American brewer has been inspired by the Saisons of the Fantome Brewery, which is a tiny little brewery that I remember visiting, and this beer has all of those coffee and creamy toffee flavors.
Brewers sometimes tend to call the recipe for the mash tun the mash bill, and in SPF 8 Tomme Arthur uses pilsner malt, roasted wheat, flaked barley for more body, caramelized wheat, and de-bittered black malt which gets rid of the charcoal bitterness. The hops used are Amarillo, German Tettnanger, and First Gold for a tangerine flavor. In addition to all of those, and I like this for the humor written into the specification of such a serious beer, is what he calls "Fun Stuff We Threw in the Boil": caramelized raisins, sweet orange peel, buckwheat honey, and fresh organic rosemary. This beer comes out at 8.75%. Put all of those ingredients together and you get one heck of a complex beer, one that you still feel like drinking on a hot day. Summertime beer? Wow.
You know, I think I owe an apology to Californians. I don't mean to say that I'm not fond of a place that has no seasons. I am tempted to say that I like proper seasons. But on the other hand, if it's summer all year, you get to drink this all year. Kind of neat, isn't it? Eleven months to go, better get on with it. I think I'm going to enjoy this year.
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