The day I finally finished Shakespeare’s Local and pressed ‘send’ to the publishers, I was combining my final proof read with a few long overdue brewery visits.
I spent the morning and early afternoon in Ilkley, at the ambitious new brewery that’s turning heads after just two and a half years and already straining at the seams of the new brewery site they moved into last year.
They’re quite shrewd, brewing a range of beers spanning from the light session beers beloved of the archetypal Yorkshire drinker, through to some pretty kooky experimental beers.
No prizes for guessing what they wanted to brew when they invited both me and Melissa Cole to brew within a few days of each other.
This was a proper ‘Collabrew’ (that’s my new word) in which I got to have real input into what we were brewing. Ilkley wanted to brew a dark saison. We both love saison for the hints of spice and farmyard funkiness they offer. The thought behind this brew was sod hints, let’s go for full expression. So we used a saison yeast, lots of pale malt, a hint of crystal and a bit of torrefied wheat and dehusked carafa malt, aiming for a target strength of 6% ABV.
We then got a bit of the wort and started muddling different varieties of hop in the glass, trying out different combinations. The Ilkley chaps wanted to stick some New World hops in, and I was looking for something with an orangey nose to complement everything else we were about to bung in. We settled on Saaz hops for bittering, and Amarillo and Summit for aroma.
Finally, near the end of the boil we added 2kg of dried orange peel, 300g of ground coriander, 150g of ground ginger and 60g of grains of paradise – an intense, aromatic peppercorn.
This was going to be a big beer, the kind of beer that would walk up to a bar and get served before you, even though it was your turn. The kind of beer that, if it was a dog, and you took it for a walk, would pull you along disobediently, hunkering down and dragging you with its muscly forelegs.
When I tasted it after the boil, the spices didn’t quite punch me in the face, but they did bunch my collar in their fists and hold me up against the wall. Taste memories of North Africa flashed through my brain, and I jokingly tweeted that I suspected we had just invented a new beer style – Moroccan Saison. And so Medina was named – a beer to warm the heart on cold Saharan nights, a beer whose rugged boldness would not suffer fools.
It didn’t work out like that – at least, not quite.
No one quite knows what happened in the fermenter. Wonderful things happen in fermenting vessels all the time, and our understanding of what and why is still hazy at best.
As it matured, our bold, spicy beer became smooth, sophisticated and urbane. It took a degree, started reading the classics and listening to Mahler. When it came out the other end, it was still big and powerful – it would still muscle to the bar and get served before you. But when it did, it would say, “No, I believe this gentleman was here before me.”
The finished beer suggests exoticism and travel, but with a refined air. It’s incredibly smooth and silky, more like a chocolate porter than a saison. That must come from the dehusked carafa – unless someone bunged in a load of chocolate malt when no one was looking. But it’s amazing what a difference it made given that this dark malt made up less than 5% of the total malt bill.
That smoothness opens out into a gentle, subtle but rounded fruitiness in the mouth, with a touch of vanilla. And then, the spices build in the way they do in a very good curry – gentle at first at the back of the mouth, then slightly more assertive, a dry, peppery spice that gives the palate a definite but quite polite buzz.
Melissa brewed a similarly outlandish ‘rhubarb saison’ called Siberia, which I got to taste briefly at Craft Beer Co when my beer launched there a couple of weeks ago. I was a little hazy by that point (Medina is 6% and very drinkable, and I always make the mistake of thinking I’m drinking less of beers like that by drinking halves) but I remember it being deliciously fruity and aromatic. You can read a little more detail on that at Melissa’s blog.
I was very chuffed to hear that Medina had sold out before it had even left the fermenter, and it’s been getting great feedback from those people lucky enough to get hold of some – I managed to get another pint down at the new Cask Pub and Kitchen in Brighton at the weekend.
What I liked most about these experimental beers was the sense of fun that went with them. We had a great time brewing them and I certainly had a lovely time drinking them. They’re not the most ‘out there’ beers I’ve had in recent weeks – I’ll be talking more about some other ones very soon – but I’ve been really enjoying pushing the flavour boundaries.
There is a degree of cynicism about beers like this in some quarters, and doubtless there will be a few outraged trainspotters either denying that a Moroccan Saison could ever exist, or struggling to find the right place for it in beer’s ever-expanding taxonomy. Sod them – it was a great beer to brew, a great beer to drink, and it makes people happy, so I’m happy too.
Doubtless there is a little bit of Emperor’s New Clothes around some experimental corners of beer production – as Tandleman recently averred. But I’ve recently been enjoying both experiments such as this, and the joys of the traditional session pint. There’s so much binary, black-and-white thinking in the beer world (even the sub-editors of the above piece misrepresented it as an attack on experimental beer, when if you read what I wrote, it’s patently not). We all love talking about how beer is such a wonderfully diverse drink. What on earth is the problem with diversity? And what’s the problem with stretching that diversity further? If it’s a bad beer, it’s a bad beer. Maybe it’ll be a good one next time.
Thanks to Ilkley for allowing me to co-create a very nice one indeed – I hope they brew it again soon.