Style highlight – Grisette
After a long day’s brewing, which is very hot work (and sadly we are now out of the approximately two months a year in which a brewery is at a reasonable temperature), I like to crack open a cold can of porter. People often think I’m bonkers for this. ‘Why on earth would you sink a dark beer when you’re visibly steaming?’ they shout/mutter/imply when I tell them of my ritual.
Well, I’m not talking a high ABV, viscous sort of porter – the one we brew at Neckstamper, Bonebox Cooler, so is easily accessible, it is 4% and based on a 150-year-old recipe – so isn’t strong, is smooth but light in body, is dry on the finish, and the dark malts give it that burnt/chocolate astringency so it comes across a bit like a cold brew coffee. Porter is, after all, a style that was supposed to be refreshing, that the workers (porters) down by the Thames would sink after or even during a hard day’s work, and for a time it was the most popular beer style in the world. It was a proper worker’s beer, a theme on which variations were brewed around the world, and they varied considerably but have a few key characteristics – low ABV, easy drinking, and cheap.
Not too long ago I discovered another of these variations which may actually be more refreshing than my cold porter (I know, wild!); the Grisette, a beer I now firmly believe to be one of my favourites (not just my favourite beers but things in general), despite me having only tried three of them. I only discovered it during one of our lockdowns, thanks to Exhale Brewing in Walthamstow. I was doing a number of online beer tastings at the time, and one particular group who were doing them regularly liked to keep me on my toes (they really know their beer), so, keen to surprise them, I had been hunting for something a little different to include. I stumbled across Holler on Exhale’s website, a 3.2% grisette, and the description had me intrigued. In this first, and so hopefully worst, blog post for our site, I’ll attempt to explain this beer, which I’ve been prattling on about to all and sundry since I first took a sip.
The Grisette originates from the mining regions along the border of Belgium and France and dates back to the late 1800s. Much like the Saisons of Belgium, which were brewed in the winter months to be a thirst-quenching beer for the farm hands in the busy and hot summer months or the aforementioned porters in London, the Grisette was a low-alcohol beer designed to sate the miners not inconsiderable thirst after a long hard day underground smashing stones (there was/is probably more to mining than smashing stones). The name itself, meaning ‘little grey one’, potentially relates to a few things:
the colour of the stone that the miners were working in would leave them covered in grey dust at the end of the day;
the women working in the bars serving the miners wore grey dresses;
because there’s a lot of wheat in the malt bill for a grisette, thus making the beer hazy/white (like wheat/witbiers and so on), so arguably giving the beer a kind of grey hue; or
none of the above, it is something that Gary decided to call it one day at the bar because grey was his favourite colour.
Beer history is nothing if not incomplete, so we’ll probably never know (it isn’t 4 though).
So what is the beer like? Apart from being low strength (around 3.5%, although it can be more/less), it also, as already mentioned, tends to feature a lot of wheat in the grain bill, is lightly hoppy and a little spicy from the yeast. It is a farmhouse ale, so can be made with mixed yeast cultures, Brettannomyces (wild yeast) and/or Saison yeasts which means, as with Saisons, it tends to be quite dry and can have a bit of a funk to it, as well as tartness. It is actually much like a Saison (some see it as a sort of mini-Saison) and so a key characteristic is that the yeasts used to ferment them are high-attenuating (meaning they convert a large proportion of the sugars from the malt into alcohol/CO2, thus making the beer have a dry finish) and they impart those estery, peppery and fruity flavours which work so well for the style. As with many farmhouse ales, and beer styles in general, there is a fair bit of scope for interpretation.
Exhale’s Holler was blended with 10% of a barrel-aged beer to add a foeder-like flavour (a foeder is essentially a massive barrel used to ferment and mature beer in), and somehow (having never had a proper traditional Grisette) what they made I imagine was pretty close to what those dusty stone-smackers would have so keenly sunk 150 odd years back. Exhale used a house blend of yeasts to make Holler, which was zesty and peppery with a vanilla hint from the wood. This combined with a really moreish crispness, as well as the white grape suggestion from the little Nelson Sauvin addition at dry hop made this a really memorable beer for me (although I’m working from memory for this description so if you tried it and remember better please say so below!).
So where can you get such a wonderous drink? Not many places really. Like the Gose from the Goslar region of Germany, or Berlinerweisse from Berlin and surrounds, it is a regional style that for a time was much-loved and enjoyed, but gradually died out with the coming of commercial lagers and bigger brewing, as well as societal, industrial and technological changes (probably a blog post or twelve to be done on this later). Much like those styles it was the craft brewers over in the States that played a large part in ensuring this most special of brews wasn’t lost to the sands of time, their curiosity and lack of being ham-strung by tradition meant they took ideas and recipes from all over the place and ran with them. Now a handful of breweries in the UK have started to see the light and try their hands at making their own interpretations, with delicious results, and there’s a modest but growing interest in the style from brewers and craft beer drinkers.
In conclusion, because there probably should be a conclusion, there’s currently a growing demand for lower ABV beers that are full of flavour without being too thin/watery, and so I think it’s the Grisette’s time to make a proper comeback (well, ‘comeback’ might be a stretch as it was never really here) and it fits that brief better than any other beer (shut up Table Beer). It’s light and refreshing, but also complex, so can be quaffed at pace if required, but also slowly enjoyed and really pored over (and poured over and over again – sorry). For me, it is the perfect session beer, and if Exhale ever re-brews theirs, if that’s even achievable, I’ll be first in line to buy all of it. Maybe it can even replace my porter as the post-brew day coolant, and you can stop chuntering on about me thinking (correctly) porter is refreshing.