The Rutland Arms on Brown Street began Sheffield Beer Week in style with a bottle showcase and tap takeover from the legendary Belgian brewery Fantôme. Founded in 1988 by the eccentric but masterly Dany Prignon, the brewery specialises in the saison style and is especially popular over in the United States.
Originally a low-strength beer given to farm workers (“saisonniers”) to keep them hydrated, modern saisons have evolved somewhat and tend to come in between 6 and 8% ABV. Flavourings such as fruits and spices are often added to the recipe to create a range of varieties, each with their own unique characteristics.
The Fantôme beers on keg downstairs were tasty enough, but I was here for the bottle tasting, which promised a journey through the brewery’s extensive repertoire of beers, including some rare vintages and a few brews which had never been released to the public.
Our hosts for the evening were brewer Mike James and renowned beer sommelier Roberto Ross. Mike is from Derbyshire and formerly brewed at Buxton Brewery back in the days when they were starting to become popular, and more recently has been running the cuckoo brewery, Landlocked. The pair have been involved with Fantôme for a couple of years, and Mike’s official title at the brewery is “master of magic”!
We kicked off with Blanche (4.5%), not in fact a saison at all but a classic Belgian witbier (think Hoegaarden). This was a great example of the style with hints of coriander and orange peel. Next up came Saison d’Érezée Hiver – labelled at 8%, but as with many Fantôme beers it actually went into the bottle at around 7.5%. As these beers are bottle-conditioned they continue to ferment, so the strength you drink it at can vary depending on how long the beer has been aged. Hiver is, of course, the French word for winter and this beer was packed with warming winter spices which complimented the “funky” saison flavours beautifully.
We were then treated to a few of the brewery’s core range, including Saison (the secret ingredient is magic), Chocolat (made with real Belgian chocolate) and Fantôme de Noël (full of Christmas spices), before some of the rarer and more interesting beers started to make an entrance. In true Belgian style, the dregs were poured into each taster too – the yeast is where all the flavour is!
The bottle of Magic Ghost looked unassuming enough, but on pouring the beer was vivid green in colour; Mike explained that this was due to the addition of green tea and spinach extract during the brewing process. The theme of tea continued with Gunpowder Mild, a collaboration brew with Landlocked. This beer (one of the last to be brewed on Fantôme’s original kit before its recent replacement) was a unique mixture of a saison with a Victorian mild, with various types of gunpowder tea used in place of hops to provide aroma and bitterness.
One of my highlights of the night was Fantôme in Flowers – another collaboration effort, this time with Berlin-based Australian brewers Parasite Produktions. As the name promised, this was a more delicate beer, laced with lavender and beautifully refreshing. Next up came a couple of never-to-be-released experimental saisons – truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Our final beer of the night was one from the archives. Dating from 2007, not even Mike and Roberto knew what to expect from this bottle of Sante-11. When bottled, this had apparently been a fairly standard saison with typical adjuncts such as coriander, oregano and black pepper. However, it turned out that 12 years had certainly had an effect – when poured, the beer had taken on an almost cheesy aroma and had huge chunks of yeast suspended in it. Luckily it tasted better than it smelled (and looked), a complex spiciness with maybe just a hint of sourness starting to creep in.
All in all, we had a fantastic evening and at £15 per person it was an absolute bargain. If you’re into Belgian beers and come across Fantôme beers, I’d definitely recommend giving them a try!