To a brewer, there’s nothing quite like the aroma of fresh ingredients - the richness of malt, the pungent smell of hops, yeast in the air. If that brewer uses fruit, or pepper, or spice, those special ingredients wrap his brain like Scheherazade in the King’s chambers. Few things are more satisfying, except perhaps, if he knows his efforts are part of something bigger.
For the brewers at Free Will Brewing Company in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Saison de Rose has become just that. In collaboration with four professional beer ladies in the Philadelphia region, they have brewed a beer that adds hope to the lives of those who are challenged with breast cancer.
This “October beer” is pink in hue, echoing the symbol of Breast Cancer Awareness. Proceeds from Saison de Rose will be channeled into the Rena Rowan Breast Center at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia.
We tracked down John Stemler, Brewmaster of Free Will Brewing Company for his take on this new release:
Q. Tell us a little about yourself. What do you do, and what is your role in the world of beer?
A. I am the head brewer and co-owner of Free Will. I'm not particularly comfortable with the term "Brewmaster" even though that is my actual title. I don't feel that I have mastered anything just yet. I am my own worst critic and nothing is ever good enough. There will always be a way to make the beer better.
Q. John, as one of the founders of Free Will Brewing Company, you were quick to seize the lead role in designing and brewing this beer. What were your immediate thoughts about this project?
A. When I found out Erin was asking us to work on this project, I was truly honored and excited. This is a unique opportunity for me to work with more than just Dom, Dave, and our interpretation of what the customers want. Generally, the beer industry is a male-dominated show and I think there is something lacking because of that. This presented a fresh view-point that I really looked forward to and enjoyed.
Q. How did you all get to know each other?
A. Dom and I have known each other since our early teens. We did not go to the same school districts, but met through our common sport of off-road bike racing. Dave I met through homebrewing and at The Old Eagle, coincidentally. He approached me about volunteering at the brewery. We usually thwart most offers of help, as it is quite dangerous. Dave and I seemed to talk the same kind of beer language, so I accepted. Very quickly he moved to intern, and then to employee.
Q. Creating this beer was a collaborative effort. With so many different styles of beer in the craft beer market, how did you decide on what style of beer to make?
A. Dave did a lot of leading with ideas one day, while brewing, and I helped hone some of the ideas into a coherent recipe. It was clear that he had already spent a good deal of time thinking about it. A nice saison is always a good place to start. It's is approachable, yet complex. Saisons are also very easy to pair foods with.
Q. How did you decide on the intensity of the beer? The alcohol level? Dark or light? Special ingredients?
A. Too much intensity tends to lead people to only have just one, a season. The alcohol being so low allows for novice and non-craft beer drinkers to select it and more can be had in a session. Lighter color beer is always more appealing, since dark beer is thought to be more “heavy.” As I tell people “this beer has a lot of stuff in it,” and it does, but that doesn't mean it is overwhelming. The overall profile of the beer is the sum of its parts. All the ingredients are in harmony to create roundness. Now, that being said, its simple description is “a grapefruit ginger saison” because those are the parts that we wanted to stick out a bit more than the others.
Q. How about naming your “baby.” Tell me about that process. Was it easy?
A. Oh boy, Dom was right; it took too long. So many good ideas, but which one is best? I wanted it to be simple, yet elegant. Ok, I did like this one best. Thank goodness for Joe Hogan (small business liaison) from Mike Fitzpatrick's office for having connections in the federal TTB formulation and label-approval department or we would be waiting till December.
Q. Did each of you play a particular role? What did you do, in particular, to keep the project on-task?
A. Dom kept us on course by setting time goals and didn't let us do anything too rash. I transferred everyone’s verbal ideas through my head-filter and onto paper in the form of a coherent recipe. Dave helped influence my vision of what the beer could be and played a key role in brewing the beer with me.
Q. John, You did two pilot batches, which is more than you usually do for any beer. Did you field-test those batches to any of your regulars?
A. We kept most of the test batches on at the tasting room for regulars to sample and purchase. Initially, the first was more popular but as the second matured it became the favorite.
Q. Tell me about the ingredients. Were any of these ingredients hard to work with?
A. Ginger is a pain in the butt to shred, and there is a lot of ginger in a 30 bbl recipe. Thank goodness for intern Jeff and a good food processor. We kept the grapefruit only sliced. We did not zest, as I felt the pithy flavors from the fruit were working nicely with the flavors from the yeast. As it turns out, red peppercorns aren't really pepper at all but come from a plant similar to a rose. They are also difficult to find in quantity at a reasonable price. Since we already have a Belgian-style white ale in the portfolio, we have found the best way to crush seed ingredients is with a simple homebrew grain mill with adjustable rollers ... Nice and consistent. A giant mortar and pestle is time consuming and, depending on the mood of the person doing the grinding, inconsistent.
Q. Why hibiscus?
A. 1) it adds the red color making the beer actually look like pink grapefruit juice; 2) it has a pleasant aroma to contribute; 3) it tastes kind of like cranberry which fits the profile we were going for.
Q. Won’t peppercorns make it hot for someone with high sensitivity to foods like habaneros?
A. No heat at all! A spicy, peppery profile adds complexity to the flavor and more volatile compounds for aroma. Pink peppercorns are citrusy in flavor with a nice spice. Black peppercorns are similar, but a bit more pungent.
Q. Can you tell us about the bottled version of Saison de Rose?
A. It will be conditioned and packaged in 750 ml corked-and-caged bottles. There will only be a certain amount available and they will be slightly different in flavor at first; then maturing over time. These larger bottles are convenient for gifts, taking to a dinner party, or sampling for friends.
Q. Tell me about the Brett.
A. The bottled version will be conditioned with Brettanomyces claussenii. Over time, this strain can add a bit of acid complexity which will be very appealing. For me, it lends the beer some shelf stability. A 5% saison will probably have a short life span in a bottle due to oxygen pickup in process and the low ABV factor. The Brett will consume the available oxygen and continue to act slowly on the beer in the bottle.
Q. Tell me about Saison de Rose, as if she were a person. What does she look like? What aroma does she emit? How about her flavor? The impressions she leaves you with?
A. Yikes. If she were a woman, most of her impression is directly influenced by the images of the first label created by Bob Kerr. Words like: Elegant, Sophisticated, Graceful; but also Sultry and Mysterious. I generally don't look at beer that way. It's just beer.
However, if I must: She would have some Asian characteristics, as well as Caucasian, probably French-Thai. She smells of Earth and flowers from the home-kept herb garden. She tastes crisp as ripe citrus fruit from the rind and is delicate, yet fluffy in body. She is satisfying, yet leaves you wanting more ... another, please. Ok, just a bit uncomfortable putting that out to the public and I definitely tamed that down already
Q. Is this a friendly beer?
A. Yepper. It was meant to be approachable from all angles. The sheer quantity of ingredients might scare some people, but the short description is "grapefruit ginger saison."
Q. It’s PINK. Would a man appreciate this beer?
A. Only a real man knows how to appreciate anything pink. Ha! Yeah, it's a good beer. What's not to appreciate?
Q. What exactly is Saison?
A. It is a beer originating in the French speaking side of Belgian and was brewed for the laborers during the summer season, but historically produced in the cooler months. It is a broad spectrum of color, body, carbonation, acidity, and flavor but generally it is spicy, dry, tart, and refreshing. For me, I think of spice, fruit, even grass and straw. I tend to like Earthy notes in most of my beers.
Q. Saison de Rose means Season of Pink, doesn’t it? What is the significance?
A. It is the color most associated with breast cancer awareness. It is a symbol to express moral support. Season of Pink, for me, directly indicates October which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
Q. How does it feel to be involved with this project?
A. I thought I was just going to make beer. We intended to start a manufacturing business and now we are part of something bigger than us. I am glad to be able to help in any way.