Tasting notes - Brasserie de Blaugies Darbyste
If there's a variation on the archetypal pint of ale that reveals more about the cultural mindset of an individual by the reaction it elicits than the use of fruit in brewing, I'm not sure I've come across it yet. Whether it's as simple as the inclusion of a lemon wedge clinging to the edge of a glass of wheat beer or as complex as the variety of cherry involved in the making of a kriek, there are obviously myriad levels of involvement that fruit can have in its relation to brewing, but the reactions folks will give you when offered a "fruit beer" will tell you more about their own personal experiences than the true breadth of taste you could be referring to. Around these parts, for example, fruit is almost always used to either sweeten a brew, mask imperfections and/or blandness, or as a gimmick to capture what's perceived as a beer-wary female market.
It is in that light, that upon taking her first sip of the beautifully effervescent, ginger-tinged Darbyste, that Des recounted how she thought the local Whole Foods was doing a disservice to its customers by not posting warning labels on beers like Hanssen's lambics. She imagined the reaction - one of severe revulsion, confusion, and likely nausea - that your unsuspecting buyer would likely have upon swallowing something that's packaged in a way resembling a Flemish version of a Bartles & James wine cooler, or worse, Mike's Hard Lemonade, yet tastes far more like a lemon that's been fermenting under a horse saddle. For those who feel some pressure to imbibe an alcoholic beverage, yet can only do so by masking anything that might appeal to mature tastebuds through a generous coating of syrupy, saccharine sweetness, these are not the alco-pops you're looking for. In a comparison that could be likened to the difference between Chlorodyne and children's Tylenol, one might consider Oudbeitje to be the laudanum to Lindeman's Cherry Blast.
To wit, de Blaugies has made one of those warning-label-ready beers. With a deceptively gorgeous bottle depicting a Seba-like botanical print of the figs promised within, De Blaugies' take on the fruit beer via its Darbyste incarnation is a farmhouse funk indulgence. The only hint of fig in the taste, all sugar now being long gone in the fermentation, is hidden amongst a layer of citric sourness and a fog of bretty barnyard haze, a taste redolent of figs caramelized by intense heat, as if baked atop a tart. At its core, Darbyste is a saison with a bière blanche heritage, a spiced, sparkling, demi-sec, and agreeably refreshing summer ale that, like any good piece of farmhouse art, allows for as much analysis of depth as the taster wants to employ, but will equally sate even the most nonchalant quaffer. And, like other classic saisons, its profile seems to change not only as you taste it, as it sits and warms in the glass, but even when the glass is replenished, allowing for the perfect amount of summertime daydreaming laziness as you work your way through the bottle.*
And with the first round of summer's figs ripening on the tree as I write this, in between the omnipresent plums and nascent apples, bag upon bag of impulse buy, nearly-gone peaches and apricots staking out all available kitchen surfaces, it does get a brewer's mind to wandering...
Is there room amidst the local collective taste culture to allow for fruit beers, made locally, that demand a slightly more adventurous palate, one that could embolden craft brewers to take a step towards using stone fruit, berries, or citrus in creative ways that until now have been the sole domain of a small number of farmhouse and wild ale brewers in Northern Europe? Perhaps the growing popularity of bretty beers is an indication that we're ready. Perhaps a smartly-designed warning label would be good for sales, too.
* At one point, I swear, the peppery aromas gave way to what I could only describe as "the interior of a rental car near the end of a vacation in Hawaii when you've been coated in Banana boat for a week." And then it faded back to the barnyard profile.