Back in 2005, Bridge Road Brewers was a small outfit in Beechworth, brewing beers out of Ben Kraus’ parents’ shed. Craft beer was still a relative novelty in Australia, certainly a far cry from where it is now, and with few independent breweries operating throughout regional Australia. Far fewer – well, pretty much none – were brewing saisons, the farmhouse style ale popularised by the exquisite example from Belgium's Brasserie Dupont.
Yet, in an early sign, perhaps, of how forward-thinking and innovative Ben was to prove, Bridge Road brewed a saison as one of its very first releases. In doing so, the Chevalier Saison helped give craft beer a place at the dinner table.
It was conceived as a way to encourage drinkers to think about beer as something that could be enjoyed with a meal and talked about, rather than downed while awkwardly waiting for dinner to be served and switching instead to wine.
When it was first released, the Chevalier Saison came out in 750ml champagne style bottles, part of a range of three Chevalier releases that also included fellow farmhouse style ale Biere de Garde and a Dunkel (dark wheat beer). The idea was that drinkers in restaurants (or those at home) could share it over dinner; presumably seeing an Australian beer served this way for the first time would have a perception-challenging visual impact upon many drinkers too.
Today, while saison's growth as a style has been slower than Ben might have imagined, they are becoming more prevalent – it's a beer so well suited to the warm Australian climate, after all. And, earlier this year, four-packs of Chevalier Saison in 330ml bottles were introduced and can now be bought from Dan Murphy’s stores across the country as well as independent stores. Clearly, craft beer has been making inroads since Ben poured his first one in 2005.
Over a decade on and this is far from the only measure of how times have changed. Bridge Road Brewers now exports its beers globally and has long since grown beyond the shed (which you can now rent as holiday accommodation) and into the High Country town’s historic Coach House and Stables. That said, as anyone who follows the brewery to any degree will be aware, it remains defiantly family owned and independent, with all beers still brewed by Ben and his team in Beechworth.
The craft beer market has changed drastically too, with hundreds of independent breweries now covering the country, some of which are producing fine and diverse interpretations of the saison style. A handful have even made the beer part of their core range.
With all that in mind, it seems like the perfect time to ask Ben to tell the story of his pioneering beer.
When was the beer first conceived?
We first brewed it late 2005, in the original brewhouse at Mum and Dad’s.
What did you hope to achieve with it?
The beer was directly aimed at breaking into the high end dining market, by convincing restaurants that good beer should be on their list and can present equally as well on the table as wine or high end champagne. It’s a style that suits many different foods, and the 750ml bottle format meant the beer was shared around the table and became part of the conversation.
Was it inspired by other beers?
Yes, believe it or not, by Matilda Bay and a beer Brad Rogers [ who went on to become one of the founders of Stone & Wood] was behind: Barking Duck, a spiced saison. Not to mention the global saison point of reference from Dupont.
As a brewer (as well as a beer lover), what is the appeal of a style like a saison?
I love the complexity of the style; it has a certain texture and length of flavour not typical in beer. There’s usually an interplay between esters and a strong hop regime that many people aren’t aware of (or haven’t been), as, when done right, it’s hard to pick out where the spiciness of the fermentation characters finish and the noble hop character begins.
Do you have a favourite saison (other than your own, of course)?
I do love browsing / tasting saisons whenever I travel, I think it’s a good gauge of what is happening locally as it is a style that’s open to interpretation and encourages experimentation.
I think one of my all time favourites would have to be Prairie (by Prairie Artisan Ales) from the US, and locally I’m digging the Boatrocker Chardonnay barrel (brett) saison, and La Sirène’s Wild Saison.
Did you ever expect it to become available so widely or was it conceived as a more limited release like the others in the Chevalier range?
Initially, it was widely available in terms of high end dining; we had it in most of the high end, well known venues in Melbourne: Vue de monde, Rockpool (in Sydney too), Press Club and more.
With the broadening of a full range of craft into these venues, it now has to share listing opportunities with pale ales, IPAs, and porters, which is awesome. I’m actually surprised we don’t see more saison on tap. It’s often what brewers will use as a one-off, with only a few of us doing it as a core beer.
You've said it appeals to both beer geeks and newcomers at your brewery. Why do you think that is?
Its broad appeal is due to its subtle complexity. To the uninitiated, it’s an interesting "fruity" beer that isn’t as confronting as a pale or an IPA, but to a knowledgeable drinker it has layers of complexity that makes it interesting; it isn’t a simple one-dimensional session or gateway beer.
Has the beer changed over the years?
You’ve brewed many different varieties, including those made with quince and elderflowers, what has been your favourite? And do any beat the original?
I really liked our Brettanoflower Saison, which was our Elderflower Saison aged on Brett in wine barrels.
Making perhaps the world’s first India Saison in Norway with Nøgne Ø many years ago was also a highlight. Being able to take Australian hops (Galaxy and Stella, now renamed Ella) to Europe for the first time and brew with a legend (Kjetil Jikiun, who has since left the brewery) was pretty awesome.
We still make that beer a couple times a year and it’s always impressive. We’ve also done a Black Saison for an anniversary beer. Waldo was a Berry Saison we did here as a collaboration with Edge Brewing and was also a cracker.
Where did the idea behind making an Australian-hop driven, farmhouse style beer with Nøgne Ø come from?
I’d been emailing Kjetil ahead of the collaboration and we quickly found a common interest in saison. He wanted some native Australian ingredients. I confessed I had no experience in using such ingredients and didn’t want to take a punt and fuck it up.
Kjetil doesn’t swear, but he agreed: he didn’t want to make a mess of the beer.
Galaxy and Stella were the hot new thing here, and I’m a big supporter of primary producers and love the idea of promoting Aussie farmers wherever I can. We also wanted to do something new, and couldn’t find anyone else doing a dry hopped India saison.
Has the style saison achieved as much with Australian drinkers than you expected?
It’s got a good footing. I think it will continue to grow, obviously on the sidelines of pales and the like, but it has a place and should receive more attention.
Do you think the beer has helped popularise the saison style in Australia?
Our saison? I dunno, I’d like to think so, what do you think? [Without a doubt!]
Why did you decide to put it in 330ml bottles?
Feedback from both staff and customers was that they felt it would move better in 330ml. Now we have mainly 330ml with some limited batches of 750ml (my preferred option).
Was it difficult to find a place for the beer within the Dan Murphy’s catalogue?
It was (and still is) a challenge for them. But they believe in the style and want to grow it. Currently it’s grouped with pale ales, but I believe in the future it will sit in their stores in the farmhouse ale section.
You have suggested in the past that it's a great food beer; what's your perfect Chevalier Saison food pairing?
Best pairing I ever had was at a dinner organised by Corey Crooks (owner of Newcastle’s Grain Store) when he was at the Albion in Newcastle. It was matched with a scallop tartare – texture overload. I still remember it!
Thanks, Ben. We're huge fans of the saison style of beer here at Crafty Towers and doubt we'd see so many available locally were it not for this beer.
You can check out past The Story Of... features here. And if you have any beers – classic, cult, quirky, awesome – that you'd love to know more about, let us know and we might make them a future featured beer.