Monday, 20 May 2013

What is a Saison?

            Saison is a beer style that is not well understood by even the most hard core of beer geeks. It has a very long and interesting history but was on the verge of dying out until the beer revival in the U.S. helped drive interest toward this odd style. Why then would we choose to brew such a confusing and archaic type of beer? It is simple; we find them fascinating and like to drink them. Not to mention it’s refreshing in the heat and has a pleasant complexity that allows for contemplation.
            The BJCP style guidelines defines saison as “A refreshing, medium to strong fruity/spicy ale with a distinctive yellow-orange color, highly carbonated, well hopped, and dry with a quenching acidity.” (BJCP, 2008) Today many consider Brasserie Dupont’s Saison Vielle Provision to exemplify the style but there are many well-made interpretations on both sides of the pond.

            While every beer has a story behind its development, saison’s is actually quite simple. The Flanders region of France and Belgium was and still is a fertile region full of small farms. As with most agricultural centers, much of the labor is performed by seasonal workers or saisonierres in French. Brewing has always been part of Flemish culture and it is no surprise that the majority of farms brewed their own beer for sustenance. Water in the 19th century was notoriously not potable so it was necessary for farmers to provide a safe and refreshing beverage to both hydrate and sustain the legions of saisonierres tilling the fields. Beer, being boiled, was known as a safe beverage. Furthermore, before refrigeration, beer could only be brewed in the cooler months between October and March and would have to be stored to last the summer. In Flanders, higher than normal amounts of hops were used for their antiseptic quality in order to preserve the beer throughout the year (Markowski, 2004). The end result was a low-alcohol, typically 3-4%, and highly hopped beer that could be drunk throughout the workday.

            As each farm made their own Saison it is not surprising that the style varied from farm to farm, even those in the same village. As malt was taxed higher than normal grains, many farms would add a portion of un-malted barley, wheat, rye and/or spelt in the mash. Traditionally indigenous hops were used and were often aged before use, but no one variety dominated and the only commonality was the sharp bitterness imparted. The yeast is where there is the most variation, many breweries allowed for spontaneous fermentation similar to the lambics of Brussels while others began culturing their own house strain. There is even a theory that the current Dupont strain dominating the market is actually more closely related to Saccharomyces cerevisae strains used for red-wine fermentations than ale strains (Markowski, 2004). The historical use of wild and other odd yeasts led to the high attenuation, dryness, and complex ester profile being sought by today’s saison brewers.

            Today’s brewers are embracing the creativity of saisons of the past and adding their own spin to the beer. The most notable change is the gradual increase in ABV over the years, with today's versions in the 5-6% range and some even higher! Our saison includes a good percentage of wheat and rye in the grist; we sought head retention and body from the wheat and peppery and husky notes from the rye. We have also experimented with different spice additions to further add to the flavour and aroma. All of this is on top of being able to use new-world hop varietals that are bursting with tropical and stone fruit flavours. The saison is basically a blank canvas that allows the creative brewer to paint their own picture of what they believe a beer can be. Some might say that the saison is the epitome of craft beer.

Beer Judge Certification Program. (2008). BJCP Style Guidelines for Beer, Mead, & Cider. 2008 Edition.

Markowski, P. (2004). Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition. Boulder, Co: Brewers Publications.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

What's in a Name?

Who knew that the hardest part of making a beer was coming up with a name?   This was something that we found out when we were racking our brains for weeks before we settled on 'Origin'.  The very first thing that you need to ask yourself is "What's in a name?"  What I mean by that is what constitutes a good name for a beer?

There are many beers from around the world, and just as many names. The names which tend to stick with the consumer are the ones which provide some sort of emotional connection with them. This is accomplished in many ways, but how were we going to find the right name for this year's Natural Selection beer? Im going to take you through the intriguing process of coming up with 'Origin'.

The naming process began for us when the project team for 2013 was chosen all the way back in November 2012. During the very first meeting recipes, events, social media and names were all being discussed. Let me rephrase that, it wasn't so much the actual name which was being discussed, but more the theme of the name which was being discussed.  Do we stick with a Darwin/natural selection theme, such as ‘Finch’, or do we go off in a different direction and create a unique identity such as ‘Anorak’?

This was a continuous thorn in our side over the next couple of weeks. Names were thought of, but none really stuck. That was until we were all stuck in a room together on April 5 during a brew day. We decided that we would conduct a bit of a ‘naming’ exercise. Since we have a percentage of rye in our product, we thought it would be a good idea to try and work the word ‘rye’ into any popular theme we could think of….starting with Bond movies. Here are a list of names which were thought up that day (WARNING: Contains mind-blowingly awesome names):

Ryefall ©
Live and Let Rye ©
Rye Another Day ©
The Living Ryelights ©
Ryepussy ©
From Ryessia with Love ©
Ryemonds are Forever ©
Casino Ryeal ©
Tomorrow Never Ryes ©
Moonryeker ©
Thunder Rye ©
Dr. Rye ©
Ryefinger ©
You only Rye Twice ©
On Her Majesty’s Secret Rye ©
The Man With the Golden Rye ©
The Rye to a Kill ©
Quantum of Ryeace ©
The Spy Who Ryed Me ©
For Your Ryes Only ©
License to Rye ©
The Rye is Not Enough ©
Never Say Rye Again ©

After all this excitement, and multiple other pop culture references, we ended up liking the sound of Saison “Rye’al (Rhymes with Royale). This name would stick with the project for a few weeks as the trial batches began to take shape. As time wore on, we found that the name did not have the staying power that we had first assumed, and there was some disagreement among the group members as to whether we should keep it. This is by far the hardest step to push past. Getting everyone involved in the project agreeing upon something as central as the name is extremely tough. Everyone has their own ideas, their own styles which they will put forward. Personally, I thought that I had some dead on winners, but they didn’t always catch on with the other guys. It is only after you take a step back and realise that at some point everyone is going to have to concede on one topic or another, that a final name can be chosen.

It was around about April 26th that we all fell upon a name which was originally brought to our attention by Bruce’s dad, ‘Origin’. My original feeling on the name was that it was slightly tacky, and was sure that it had been used before. That being said, these are the feelings which you have to push past to get anything done in a group project of this nature. We were decided, the 2013 Natural Selection beer would be called ‘Origin’. It was only after saying the name a couple times, having it attached to the project for a couple of meetings that I realised it was perfect. It had an original feel, had a connection to the theme of the project, and just sounded damn cool. Im not sure if this is the path that other brands have followed. For all I know it could have been the path less travelled, but it was our path, and now its a path a little more trod upon.

Patrick Howell
Natural Selection Brewing

As a side note, here are some other notable names which were brought forward during this process, so you can see how widely scattered the ideas were:

Nelson's Harvest
Nelson's Reap (This was a no-go, as it sounded too much like rape)
Chuck (Short for Charles)
Plinian (a society Darwin was a member of at the University of Edinburgh)

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Natural Selection Brewing is back!

Hello and Welcome to Natural Selection Brewing 2013!

Heriot-Watt’s Brewing students are back with the third incarnation of Natural Selection Brewing.

Bruce sparging the mash
The team has been working tirelessly to design the beer that will be next in line to those that have gone before. We are now pretty close to our final recipe, which is going to be a single hopped rye Saison. Delicious! We are still experimenting with hop varieties and we will let you know how that turns out but be sure to expect something that smells fantastic and is from New Zealand.

We have named our beer ‘Origin’ after Charles Darwin’s little known publication ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’. The project is continually evolving from year to year so we felt this was an appropriate name for our beer.
Charles likes his new hop beard
So far we have made an appearance at the 2013 Heriot-Watt beer festival, which was great fun. We didn’t have our recipe ready at this stage but the Anorak and Finch teams kindly gave us their recipes and we did our best to recreate them for the festival. They went down well but as we were giving it away for free it didn’t last long!

The project is really picking up pace now and all the planning we have been working towards is taking shape. The label is almost ready, beer orders are starting to come in and our events list is still growing – our launch is not to be missed! We have one of Edinburgh’s very best bands performing live at Bannermans, it will be a great night of beer and music.
Proof that beer makes you happy

This year the team is a Canadian, American and Scottish collaboration and we are all from very different backgrounds prior to our studies in brewing. We thought you all might be interested to find out more about us, so you can find our biographies below.

So that will do for now I think, please subscribe to this blog (over on the right) to keep tabs on our progress and to find out where you can get your hands on our tasty brew!


Dave Ross
Campbell Morrissy 
Patrick Howell
Bruce Smith

Team Bio's 

 Born and raised on the ruthless upper-middle class streets of suburban New Jersey, Campbell was weened on Guinness from the multitude of Irish pubs that dot the landscape. It wasn’t until he moved west to seek the great outdoors did he discover the plethora of craft beer that has made the U.S. the greatest brewing nation of all. Colorado was an excellent place to sample amazing beers. There are few greater pleasures than sipping a pint of an ultra-resiny IPA after a day of snowboarding.
Cam is a fan of hops

However he was not content with only drinking good beer and eventually talked his way into a brewery, leaving the high-energy world of environmental NGO’s behind. Eventually his thirst for knowledge led him to Edinburgh. He is excited to be working on such a unique project that will give him experience to help him to one day open his own brewery.

Outside of brewing Campbell is very passionate about the outdoors and loves spending time hiking, biking, snowboarding, and camping. He also gets very fired up about politics and loves nothing more than a good night of pints and debate. When not in the pub you can probably find him listening to the Allman Brothers while expertly cooking a dead animal. 

Patrick is considered to be one of the most handsome, intelligent, and talented people to come out of his native Canada since Terrence and Phillip. Originally from the town of Kitchener, Ontario, Patrick's love of brewing started out just like any other wildly talented young Canuck’s did, Molson Canadian. It was soon after that he found that beer has flavour and he started to explore the wonderful world of craft. The aroma, the flavour, the look, it seemed that the possibilities were endless.
Pat is a shy boy

One night, after humming his favorite bedtime song, ‘Life is a Highway’ by the great Tom Cochrane, he saw a majestic beaver and as all Canadians do when they have a rare sighting of a beaver, he wished, and wished, and wished that he could get a job at a brewery. The next day he got that job in the brewing industry at a company called Brick Brewing Company in Waterloo Ontario. He couldn’t thank the beaver enough. It was soon, however, that he found out the summer placement consisted of putting dirty, empty return bottles on a conveyor belt for 12 hours a day. It was a harsh introduction to what he thought had been a wonderful, joyous industry as shown by the great Pawtucket Pat in the documentary ‘Family Guy’.

Nonetheless, he was resolute and rose through the ranks over the next two years to become one of the full time brewers and cellarman. Loved by the local community for the affection that he showed for his new craft, Patrick put everything he could into brewing for many years.

Soon he grew weary of the monotony of brewing the same beer day after day, and yearned for more. “MORE MALT, MORE HOPS, MORE HEAD *wink*” he proclaimed. And so he set out for the far away land known as Scotland, to the International Center for Brewing and Distilling at Heriot-Watt University. This was where he would learn his craft, this was where he would brew his hopes, and distill his dreams.

Patrick and the other 3 members of Natural Selection Brewing are excited to showcase their talent and provide the United Kingdom with a fantastic product. Looking forward to the product launch!!!

Patrick Howell 

Bruce is a typical guy with one exception; he spends most of his time making (or drinking) beer. Originally of Scottish decent; Bruce grew up in England and Germany before finally finding a permanent home in his motherland of bonnie Scotland. His younger years were spent at Beaconhurst High School in Bridge of Allan; academic and sporting achievements were plentiful but soon enough it was time to head out west to Glasgow to pursue a career as a Physiotherapist; or so he thought…
Gunshow tickets available now
Time passed with many a beer drank and enjoyed but none made by his own hand. That was until one fateful day when a summer vacancy appeared in his local brewpub the “Allanwater Brewhouse” and “TinPot Brewery”. There he was trained by Masterbrewer Douglas Ross in the art of craft beer. His life was changed forever and he swapped the stethoscope and acupuncture needles for malt and hops.

Now as the head brewer of this establishment and with experience in brewing everything from Scottish heather honey blondes aged in Edradour Whisky and Sauternes Wine casks to chocolate-orange infused imperial stouts, Bruce believed it was time to set out into the wider beer world.

Along with his fellow classmates Pat Howell, Campbell Morrissy and Dave Ross from the International Centre of Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University; Bruce looks to do this with Natural Selection Brewing. With all of their journeys to this point being so varied and their expertise so diverse there can be no doubt that they will be releasing one of the most exciting new beers in the summer of 2013. So come one, come all; follow their Facebook, Twitter and Blog to find out when and where you can get your hands on what will undoubtedly be a beautiful and “highly evolved” new beer!


Bruce Smith 

Dave has been a resident of Edinburgh all his life and has known Beer for many years now, a relationship which began with a teenage interest in homebrew kits. For those that don't know, these are Beer concentrates that you dilute with water and then ferment. Also readily available to those not yet of age. Excellent! This turned out to be an exceptionally inexpensive way for Dave and Beer to get to know one and other a bit better.

After fuelling a few campfire sing-songs with the results of these early brewing experiments, Dave decided that Beer kits were just not cutting it and so armed with plastic buckets, his mum's cooker and an inexhaustible naive patience, he decided to embark on the mighty all grain brewing. There was no turning back for Dave and Beer now.

After a short period working as a Drayman, Dave got the opportunity to shadow John McGarva at the Tryst Brewery, which gave him his first hands-on experience of being a brewer in the real world. John helped Dave design his own nano-brewery where he is continuing to experiment with homebrew recipes.

Dave missed a spot
Around the same time Dave met Beer he was also introduced to Drums, another relationship which has stood the test of time. Meeting Drums has led to Dave playing in bands for most of his adult life and Drums have proved to be every bit the companion that Beer has been. Neither Beer or Drums ever get jealous, in fact, Beer and Drums get on just fine even when Dave isn't around.

And so all this has led to Dave being part of the 2013 Natural Selection Brewing Team at Heriot-Watt University. Dave says, "We've got a lot to live up to! But we're determined to give it our best shot and hopefully have some fun along the way. It's a great project to be involved in, a great experience."

So there you have it. A drumming brewer. God help us.