Just when I begin to think about the crisp, bubbly brews of summer, New Glarus brewmaster Dan Carey and his talented laboratory manager Randy Thiel are up to something special. Guess we shouldn't be all that surprised!
Carey is well known among Wisconsin beer aficionados. Thiel joined New Glarus a little more than a year ago after a stint with New York's Ommegang Brewery. Thiel is also a member of "Le Chevalerie du Fourquet des Brasseurs," otherwise known as the Knighthood of the Brewers' Mash Staff, of which there are only 14 American members. So I wondered what might be created if Carey and Thiel "unplugged" to create something outside the traditional brewhaus. Their co-creation is a beer called Imperial Saison and it just hit local shelves last weekend.
What is it? Unplugged: Imperial Saison from New Glarus Brewing Company.
Style: Saison is the French word for "season." Historically the Saison was a low-alcohol, pale-colored beer brewed in farmhouses in the French-speaking region of Belgium to refresh farm workers. The Saison is golden to deep amber in color. It is generally considered light-bodied. Its malt aroma is low to medium, with a hoppy bitterness that is assertive but not overwhelming. The Saison may have a spicy and fruity character with a balanced amount of sour or acidic flavors. You may even find some earthy, cellar-like aromas. Saisons are commonly around 5% ABV.
Background: New Glarus adds "imperial" to its Saison label to reflect the strong character in flavor, body and amount of alcohol. But the secret to this beer comes from two ingredients. First, Carey and Thiel used a unique ale yeast and Lactobacillus bacteria that together impart the tartness and distinctive light hint of apricots. Second, Grains of Paradise and ginger were added for spiciness. Grains of Paradise, with a pepper-like quality, comes from West Africa where it grows as a leafy plant. The name comes from the medieval era, attributed to seeds that grew only in Eden and had to be collected as they floated in the rivers flowing from Paradise. Finally, New Glarus Imperial Saison is bottle-conditioned, so expect this beer to have lots of frothy head and a modest warmth from its 8.7% ABV. Imperial Saison sells for around $9/4-pack.
The Imperial Saison is part of the New Glarus signature "Unplugged" series of beers. These limited-release brews reflect the creativity of Carey and are sold in four-packs. A little over a year ago, New Glarus fired up its new $21 million brewery, referred to as the Hilltop Brewhouse. But the Unplugged beers continue to be made in the original brewery (a.k.a. the Riverside Brewhouse) just a few miles away. Due to the increased demand for the Unplugged brews, New Glarus has recently expanded again, with a new kegging line in the Riverside Brewhouse. The new equipment was needed to keep up with the local demand for special releases, especially Unplugged releases in kegs that are desired by local restaurants, supper clubs and taverns.
- Aroma: Spicy with a light earthiness.
- Appearance: Deep golden color, very bubbly with a thick white head.
- Texture: Light- to medium-bodied. Very effervescent and crisp.
- Taste: Initial yeasty qualities give way to an assertive fruitiness with hints of peach and apricot.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The fruitiness, especially the apricot tones, really emerges as the beer warms slightly.
Glassware: This beer's color, effervescence and fruity crispness make it ideal for a flute or Champagne glass.
Pairs well with: The Saison is a beer style that has no loyalty to food. When done correctly, it seems to go with everything because of its fruity crispness and spiciness. New Glarus Imperial Saison is indeed a great food beer, and a complement to most entrees. Because of this beer's assertive peach and apricot tones, it will match especially well with sushi.
Rating: Four Bottle Openers (out of four).
The Verdict: The Imperial Saison is the ultimate summer beer. Unfortunately New Glarus only made about 100 barrels this year so it won't last long. One can only imagine how good this beer will taste in the heat of late July and August while watching a summer sunset. This is what Dan Carey's Unplugged series of beers is all about -- it is his chance to let go and make something beyond strict style definitions. Imperial Saison from New Glarus is a reflection of the artesan that we've come to expect in Carey and his brews. It's just a small batch of awesome beer delightfulness!