There are trends in craft beer like any other industry. Typically, anything that’s labeled “imperial” or “oak-aged” garners a lot of attention. Some have been pushing for “sessionable” beers to be a trend. Lately, turning something pale into something dark is a hip trend in beer styles. That and gypsy brewing are two trends I’m enjoying immensely for pushing the definition of a beer and its brewer.
The dark Saison or farmhouse ale is the ugly step-child of the Cascadian dark ale/black IPA in much the same way the Saison has been treated in comparison to the IPA/DIPA. However, as tastes grow to become more sophisticated, the Saison is gaining attention. It doesn’t hurt when brewers like Boulevard sour their Saisons with Brettanomyces or infected tanks to add character that bitter India pale ales just can’t obtain. Now, the black Saison is gaining ground on the black IPA in much the same way.
One brewery that does the Saison better than almost any is Stillwater Artisanal Ales. The Baltimore-based brewery recreates the farmhouse like few clans of Amish ever wished or hoped to raise on a Saturday afternoon. Wet horse blankets and all fill 750mL bottles topped with home-winery PVC caps and stickered labels that draw the envy of many an artist.
Besides the great beer and label artwork, the other aspect that sets Stillwater apart from most breweries is their status as a “gypsy brewery.” Much like the Coalition’s favorite Mikkeller, Stillwater pays breweries to use their facilities in creating their artisanal ales. The gypsy brewery is the nomad of the nano set, the free spirit of craft beer. And the results are pretty amazing.
Last night, I cracked open Stillwater’s Existent, a dark, almost black farmhouse ale that defines/defies the style like few others could. The only other black Saison I’ve had capitalized on the sweetness of the dark malt, but this beer brings the roastiness like Starbuck’s tenfold. Coffee and chocolate dominate the tongue, but that familiar pungency of the Belgian Saison fills your nasal passages with floridness that is pure farmhouse. Some of the reviews I read didn’t sense the Saison characters, but you have to breath in deep on this one and when you catch it, it takes over. The combination is all raisins and roasted chicken, possibly even coq au vin.
As with my last straight-up beer review, I have focused on a beer that defies convention brewed by a brewer who also defies convention. It’s hard to figure out a beer who’s style is supposed to be fruity, earthy, but is corrupted with roasted malt. Additionally, it’s hard to figure out brewers who don’t have a street address. The challenge lies in getting past this unconventional approach to the conventional and just judging the beer on its own merits. It’s roasty like the finest porter, but the floral aroma says nothing but French/Belgian countryside. This makes Existent a triumph at best and a good beer to have with your roasted chicken at worst.