If the email hadn’t arrived a full month before I wrote an essay entitled How One Beer Geek Fell Out of Love With Hazy IPA, I would have assumed that Fair Isle Brewing owner Andrew Pogue must have read that sentiment, when he began his message with the following: “We are a new brewery in Seattle and we don’t brew an IPA!”
That alone is enough to provoke some raised eyebrows, I have to imagine, especially in the hop-rich Northwest. That isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of other breweries out there that choose not to brew IPA—there are lager specialists, and wild ale specialists, among other things—but it’s always a pretty clear statement of purpose when a brewery chooses to eschew the country’s most popular craft beer style. There’s money to be made in India pale ale, after all, as evidenced by the slapping of “IPA” onto barely connected beer styles, or the bros who ask for “the best IPA” at the taproom without even understanding what those letters mean. Any brewery that chooses NOT to produce an IPA is giving up easy money and attention, which subsequently makes me curious to know what they are more passionate about.
For Fair Isle Brewing, the answer is saison and wild ales, all primarily made with what Pogue went on to refer to as “our house blend of wild and feral yeasts and bacterias.” That was more than enough to capture my attention, especially in a time when my palate has been in serious hazy IPA fatigue. And thus, I ended up with a lineup of five Fair Isle beers to sample.
Tasting them, I found a new brewery whose principal focus would seem to be delicacy and drinkability. Across this lineup, these beers were subtle, nuanced and always very approachable, regardless of whether they were more sour, funk forward, or hoppy. Yes, hoppy—they don’t make an “IPA” at Fair Isle, but they’re not afraid to occasionally throw some hops around, with excellent results.
Here, then, are some impressions on the five beers I tasted from Fair Isle. Of note: The “first name” convention used for naming most of these beers (such as “Bobbi,” “Leila” and “Eleanor”) can’t help but remind one of Vermont’s famed Hill Farmstead—you have to wonder if that’s an intentional choice to put drinkers in a similar mindset.
Leila is described by the brewery as being “a saison brewed with Purple Egyptian barley,” which “imparts a soft and round mouthfeel but contribues minimal color.” This weighs in at a tidy 5.1% ABV.
This one reads as a cleaner saison, with aromatics that are lightly bready, with hints of clove and pear fruit. There’s a very light acidity on the palate, and a slightly viniferous quality, with hints of light grape. The barley also contributes a graininess, almost “Cheerios”-esque, with a twist of lemon citrus. All in all, Leila is extremely easy to drink, with a clean finish that disappears quickly from the tongue. It’s not particularly funky or brettanomyces-forward, instead being more of a clean, classic saison. A session saison, if you will, all the way.
A drinker might hope for something more assertive or complex coming out of a 750 ml bottle, but a Belgian patio pounder like this is by no means a bad thing.
The brewery describes this one as “a saison with new world hops—Loral, Citra and Mosaic. Brewed with barley and wheat grown in the Skagit Valley and malted by Skagit Valley Malts.” It’s a somewhat bigger 7.1% ABV.
Obviously, you can get away with operating a brewery that “doesn’t make an IPA,” but you probably can’t successfully run one that doesn’t brew anything hoppy. There’s got to be something on the menu for the people asking for an IPA alternative, and for Fair Isle that beer is Bobbi, a beautifully composed, wild yeast-accented saison.
This one is highly carbonated, with lots of tight, dense foam, which throws off big aromatics of bubblegum and tropical fruit. Kiwi, mango and grass show up big on the palate, with vivacious brettanomyces character and lightly doughy malt, supported by tropical fruit and bubblegum flavors. There’s a hint of residual sweetness that makes the tropical fruit notes pop a bit more, in a way that makes me think of Fruit Stripe gum. The creamy foam and high carbonation likewise stick around, in a beer that is really delicious top to bottom. It’s extremely drinkable as well—a summer quaffer with a dangerous ABV and enough hop character to win over anyone who typically would prefer pale ale or IPA. This is excellent.
“The Knitting Circle” is apparently the name of Fair Isle’s yearly bottle membership, and this particular beer is “season one,” which is described as “a saison aged in a gin barrel from Copperworks Distilling.” The phrase “gin barrel” isn’t something you see often; we can probably assume this was originally a whiskey barrel that was then used to rest some gin, as even barrel-aged gins don’t typically spend time in newly charred oak. This beer weighs in at a modest 5.6% ABV, a bit surprising for something coming out of a spirit barrel.
You might expect this beer to have picked up big notes of oak and booze, ‘ala most bourbon barrel stouts, but it’s instead quite delicate. Bright citrus is the main signature on the nose, with notes of lemon, grapefruit and pine. It’s slightly tart on the palate and a little bit herbal—lightly funky and lightly tart, but very easy drinking once again. There’s a bit of bready malt, but not a ton of recognizable “gin barrel” coming through, in the sense that I don’t think any blind taster would come up with the word “gin” without specifically being told. I certainly don’t get a lot of juniper berry type flavors, or oak, although it’s probably the source of the subtle pine. Rather, there’s some nice wild yeast-derived complexity here instead, with a slightly leathery funk, and lemon thyme herbaceousness. It’s very tasty, and very drinkable, although it doesn’t necessarily make me think “gin.”
The first beer release in Fair Isle’s series of fruited farmhouse ales, Tove is described as “an oak aged ale re-fermented on Washinton-grown blackberries.” Notably, the brewery describes its philosophy toward fruit beers as “one of simplicity and restraint,” saying that “Tove is a beer that both expresses what we love about the fruit, but with a transparency that allows the nuance character of the base beer to shine.” In other words, that’s a warning not to expect a total fruit bomb, which has increasingly become the expectation for any beer in this style in an era where so many breweries have abandoned subtlety altogether. This one is 6.7% ABV.
That description proves to be pretty accurate, as Tove is moderately funky and slightly wild/leathery on the nose, with notes of violet florals and blueberry-like fruit. The “blueberry” thing was something I found myself coming back to, as it reminded me of those berries almost more than blackberry. On the palate, it’s moderately tart and fairly funky, with some definitely noticeable tannins and notes of grape and fresh berries, and a bit of bitter pith. It’s fairly dry, all in all, but there is a little bit of a roundness to it that keeps Tove from having any rough edges—just enough residual sweetness to take the edge off, you could say. Perhaps ironically, I actually thought “juniper berries” at one point in terms of flavor, after not picking them up in the beer that was literally aged in gin barrels. Tasting is an inexact science!
Finally, we have Eleanor, which is the second in the brewery’s series of fruited farmhouse ales. It’s similar in strength, at 6.6% ABV, but re-fermented on “foraged elderberries” rather than Tove’s blackberries.
In comparison with the previous beer, this one is more bright and fruit-forward. The nose proclaims more of a juiciness, and seems pretty markedly tart, with big notes of red berries. Personally, I probably would have identified it as raspberry if tasting blind, especially thanks to the vivid red color, but that’s really no surprise—how many of us have sampled a lot of elderberries on their own? On the palate, this one is just slightly funky, with a hint of earthiness, but it’s more cleanly lactic and tart than Tove. The fruit flavors are bright and moderately strong, with a bit of residual sugar, although it’s still pretty dry. It’s still on the delicate side compared to the fruited sours being produced by many modern breweries, which are often clear in their intent to pack as much flavor as they possibly can into each bottle. This is a more subtle approach, and one that I can easily appreciate.
I look forward to sampling far more from Fair Isle Brewing in the years to follow. Even if I should become obsessed with the newest evolution of IPA as a genre, I hope that breweries like this one will continue to stake a claim outside that space.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident craft beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for much more drinks writing.