Tag Archive for: Saison

Of late I’ve been spending more time than usual inside Manchester railway arches. The usual hop-driven hideaways once promoted as The Piccadilly Beer Mile? Indeed, yes, but checking out a new wave of craft breweries with their roots in the first wave.

In what was the original Track premises on Sheffield Street I got previews of crowd-pleasing IPAs from Sureshot, new venture from James Campbell, a key figure in the rise of both Marble an Cloudwater.

That brewery is now safely launched and causing quite a stir. Next in the pipeline is a very different operation, Balance Brewing & Blending – an ambitious, barrel-fermenting labour of love from two brewers, whose day jobs are at Squawk and Track respectively. James Horrocks and Will Harris both share a common thread in their CVs that is a pointer to their leftfield brewing direction. Both worked for a certain Mike Marcus, regarded as the Che Guevara of the sour beer revolution. When Donald Trump was elected President maverick Mike cut all American hops out of his brewing process. Come Covid he mothballed his Chorlton Brewing Company and decamped to the Continent. Whispers have it Belgium or Estonia may be its next home. 

It was never in Chorlton, but at  69 North Western Street, three arches down from Manchester Brewing Company, where James and Will rent brewing kit and store the key to their operation, 30 neutral barrels, where the wood won’t overwhelm their blends’ fruit. It has been a patient past 12 months or more waiting for the contents to mature to attain the right balance. For the duo, committed to barrel fermented, mixed culture beers, BALANCE is more than just a slogan. 

Funky doesn’t have to mean over the top and their commitment to British ingredients is not  a radical political stance. Their use of malt from Fawcetts in Yorkshire, hops from Brookhouse in Herefordshire and British grown fruit makes a sustainable statement about terroir. Early days yet, but tasting their first release, from bottle, it all made immediate sense. 

Will Harris and James Horrocks have invested in quality barrels to pursue their brewing dream

The quietly glorious Saison de Maison will be launched at Cafe Beermoth in Manchester city centre from 6pm on Thursday, May 19. This is what Horrocks and Harris say about it: “It’s is a 6 per cent bretted saison, blended from beer fermented and conditioned in ex-red wine barrels before being dry-hopped with fresh UK Goldings. It is the first iteration of our house saison, which will be a regular release. The base beers were brewed using low colour Maris Otter and torrefied wheat to put a British spin on a classic Lambic-inspired base. The beer was hopped in the kettle with aged British Goldings and fresh Bramling Cross before being transferred to barrel to undergo fermentation with a carefully selected blend of Saccharomyces, Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus which we propagated in-house. 

“After the fermentation and conditioning phase we selected barrels which offered the particular funky saison characteristics we desired and developed a final blend. This blend was transferred onto fresh Goldings and stayed on the hops for a week before being bottled with nothing but priming sugar added. The bottle conditioning phase allowed all of the flavours to marry and develop until we were happy that the beer was well balanced and ready to release. 

“The end result is a beer with bright carbonation and pleasing acidity leading into a layered, fruit forward brett and hop character. We get funky pineapple up front with hoppy notes of gingerbread, ripe peach and subtle Perry pear. Gentle bitterness and herbal, woodruff notes meander into the long, clean yet complex finish. This is the first beer we envisaged as we dreamed of brewing our own beer and we are so pleased with how it has come out.”

So what tipped the balance to get the right blend for this project?

James Horrocks and Will Harris laid the foundation in 2021, working evenings and weekends to get Balance off the ground. It helped that their niche ‘side project’ was not in competition with the core range of their employers, Squawk and Track. The pair were buoyed by their shared enthusiasm for sour, wild and funky beer nurtured at Chorlton. It also helps to heve some serious brewing chops. Will has a first degree in biochemistry and an MSc in Brewing and Distilling from Herriot Watt University. So what can we expect from the 750ml sharing bottles they will be releasing, roughly a beer a month over the next year? 

Over to James: “Our aim is to produce nuanced sour and funky beers in a range of styles, from bretted saisons to Lambic-inspired creations, utilising both wild captured and lab propagated yeasts and bacteria. After fermenting in barrels for anywhere from four months to several years, we carefully select blends and move them onto hops, fruit or straight into bottle. The outcome is tart, complex, funky, fruity and ultimately an expression of our passion for these styles of beer and for the complexity that can be achieved through simple ingredients. Our next release is already in bottle too: Jam, a blend of saisons fermented in barrel then aged on damsons for four months.”

There are some images that are hard to sweep from your mind. You know the sort of stuff – hypocritical politicos caught by CCTV in a ‘steamy clinch’. Etched in my cranium is that ogre of monstrous appetites, Robert Maxwell, in his eyrie at the old Daily Mirror HQ in Holborn opening a desk drawer during a meeting and scooping a hairy fistful of caviar into his maw.

That might put anyone off this ultra-expensive delicacy for life. On the hack’s salary he was paying me I was never going to develop the habit. But when the opportunity comes along to reacquaint oneself with the unique experience of high end sturgeon roe it’s hard to say ‘whoa there’.

The three Petrossian caviars we got to try

I barely know my Beluga from my Ossetra but I know what I like. In truth my palate isn’t attuned to the nuances that separate the trio of caviars sent to me by iconic brand Petrossian but I’m getting there. The three 50g tins before me range in price from £100 for the Alverta® Royal Caviar through £120 for the Alverta® Tsar Impérial™ Caviar to £130 for the Ossetra Tsar Impérial™

Before I even dare broach them I have to do some research, which I can share with you as fellow caviar virgins. If you are already an aficionado (not just a show-off glutton like the aforementioned Cap’n Bob) look away now.

Prehistoric survivor – Acipenser Gueldenstaedti

Ossetra, also called Oscietra or ‘Russian sturgeon’, hails from the shores of the Caspian Sea bordering Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. It’s in those dark waters, muddied by the interminable internecine conflicts of the region, that we should start.

The star of the show is the bottom-feeding sturgeon – scientific name Acipenser Gueldenstaedti – which was around way before the dinosaurs and hasn’t had much of a makeover since. Traditionally it was an absolute lottery for sturgeon to produce offspring. Even the smallest of them are over six years old when they first spawn. Beluga and Kaluga, the larger varieties, only reach maturity in their twenties.

Sturgeon were also picky about where to lay their eggs – inevitably in tthe same area where they themselves were hatched. It was all quite an endurance test. En route they lived off their own fat, swimming upriver against the tide, until they found a rocky stretch to find a mate and spawn. Yet unlike salmon they don’t perish at the end of the process, which has kept them from extinction.

Overfishing and poaching definitely pushed the sturgeon toward the brink, though until it became illegal to fish for this species in that region. After years of studies and research, Petrossian was the first player on the market to offer farmed Ossetra in 2007.

A scattering of caviar, smoked salmon and a buckwheat blini is quite a combo

I must admit it was my favourite of the trio, whether on its own or with blinis (our own fresh buckwheat treats, not the bought-in disappointments), soured cream and slices of Petrossian’s Coupe du Tsar®  80 day smoked salmon tenderloin.

The dark amber-hued Ossetra was briny and sensual with a persistent aftertaste, for me pipping its creamier, iodised rival, the almost black Alverta® Tsar Impérial™. The other Alverta was less distinctive. Both the product of the Acipenser transmontanus white sturgeon, which can top four metres long in its natural habitat of North American rivers. Nowadays the fish is farmed for it eggs in California and Italy.

They sure love it in the ‘Golden State’ where the great chef patron of The French Laundry, Thomas Keller has just launched a new pop-up bar pairing – what else? – caviar and Champagne in the Napa Valley wine town of Yountville.

Fresh out of Krug, I opened sharing bottles of beer with photographer compadre Joby Catto. He brought along ‘Spirit of Nature’, a mixed fermentation yuzu fruited sour and

The Wild Beer Co’s Ninkasi Saison. The latter, containing 10 per cent apple juice, fruity hops and wild yeast, made an excellent fist of counterfeiting the appropriate Champagne. 

No bias here but the best match came from my Elderflower and Gooseberry Sour 2020. Tart and funky, it made a perfect marriage of convenience with the briny caviar.

Black gold comes at a mega premium price

Is it all worth it?

A pre-pandemic survey of the UK’s two and three Michelin starred restaurants discovered that over 70 per cent featured caviar on its menus. This is all the milder, farmed stuff, more sustainable than the wild product from the Caspian and Black Seas, international trade in which has been banned since 2006. That had to be done since harmful fishing practices put native sturgeon on the endangered list.

Still there are some issues in harvesting the roe (ie eggs) from sturgeon in the farms. These are discussed in a balanced way in this 2019 Guardian article.

Without the farms, caviar, an iconic luxury item, would not now exist. A new generation of chefs are seeking alternative roes but as with Champagne versus other bubbles the cachet is not the same. 

From the watershed moment when it was transformed from peasant fodder – a meat substitute during fasts – into a coveted status symbol of the Tsars and ultimately the affluent across the globe there has been no turning back for caviar.

As I nibble the final glistening ‘black gold’ off a silver spoon I relish an oligarchal sense of conspicuous consumption, but ultimately I prefer the salmon on my blini.

To buy Petrossian caviar, smoked salmon and other top of the range products visit this link.

Many thanks to Joby Catto for the beer and some excellent images.