Monday, March 4, 2013

Brasserie Fantôme - Fantôme Saison Review

Fantome saison

Brewery: Brasserie Fantôme (BEL)
Style: Saison
ABV: 8%
Grade: A+

My interest in saisons is... convoluted. I would say that I'm indifferent to probably 90 percent of saisons — those from most American craft brewers, generally speaking — as they tend to focus on the spicy, yeasty character produced by many saison strains. I would never say I dislike saisons, as a style, I'm just super picky about them. But then there are the other 10 percent of saisons, some of which are among the most complex, unique, and tasty beers I've ever tried. I don't just like those saisons; I love them. It's an odd relationship.

Take Fantome: another one of those impossible-to-find Belgian breweries that every now and then pops up on shelves in NY. Similar to Drie Fonteinen or Cantillon, their reputation is impeccable, and their lineup of saisons (and only saisons) are among the highest rated in the world, despite their scarcity and obscurity. What could make such a huge difference? And there is a huge difference — Fantome saison tastes as far from most American saisons as most saisons taste from a glass of, I don't know, ginger ale. Despite the apparent presence of spices in the brew (which strikes me as odd and unexpected), Fantome is extra tart and juicy, with much more of a sour, over-ripe fruit character than a spicy yeast character. There's barely any spice, in fact. While the dominating character of the beer is undoubtedly produced by yeast (and/or Brett and bacteria), it's so far from any comparable "yeast character" I've experienced as to render the description useless. Seriously. There's nothing out there like this beer — even Drie Fonteinen and Cantillon don't have "house flavors" this distinct.

The real difference comes in the funk. Fantome isn't rocking just your basic garden-level Brettanomyces character; the funk here is something else altogether; the full barnyard, and the pasture too. It could just be the state-of-mind this rustic beverage puts me in, but the flavor and aroma are thoroughly pastoral — fruit, hay, grass, wild herbs and goaty funky leather. The funk is on the level of some weird, exotic cheese (not that this tastes like cheese). With any sweetness, these flavors might turn unpleasant, but Fantome's tart, drinkable nature makes its quirks as refreshing as the ever-changing breeze on a summer night in some bucolic springtime meadow. One man's "WTF?" is another man's complexity, I always say.

There might be some skunking involved here too — hard to say, given the oddball nature of the existing funk, and the green bottle — but if that's part of what I'm tasting, it's not enough to hurt the beer. I've tasted two other Fantome beers on two separate occasions, as of this review, and they've all had a similar character, so I doubt that this one has a random flaw. Which is to say, I do not count it as a flaw. (Addendum: I have always heard that Fantome has consistency issues, with many reporting band-aid off-flavors from some batches. I haven't experienced this myself, but it does seem that you'll be taking a bit of a risk. Something to keep in mind). 

Not everyone is going to like this beer, and I could see some people hating it. If you're a fan of the typical American craft saison, with its spice-forward yeast character, this might strike you as some bizarre abomination. It's odd, it's aggressive, it's challenging, and vastly different from any other beer I've ever encountered. I can't promise you'll like this flavor. But with a handful of exceptions, almost every saison I've had is glaringly one-dimensional in comparison to this.

Availability: This beer lives up to its logo. (It's logo is a ghost. I'm saying this beer is hard to find, see?)  But we got a bunch in Beacon, at The Hop. 750 ml bottle.


  1. I've always loved this beer as well. I think what I really enjoy about all of the Fantome beers I've tried is how they each hold certain similarities from batch to batch, but they're always slightly different as well.

    Anytime I hear the word "terroir", Fantome is the first brewery that comes to mind.

    1. Agreed! It blows my mind when I read about the set-up he has over there. He's brewing on something like a 7 barrel system. Wish I could find more info on his process so I had a better idea where these flavors are coming from.

    2. I assume a lot of it really has to do with what's falling into the beer from the air... I have a feeling if he up and moved to a different part of Belgium (let alone to another country), that his beers would be quite different. Let's hope that never happens!

  2. Bam Biere is my favorite domestic saison; so I'm totally with you on the European differences. Your review makes me think it's much like Saison Dupont.

    1. Yeah, Bam Biere is a good one. I'm curious to retry it now that I've had some of these other great saisons from Fantome and Hill Farmstead. It's also been a while since I've had Saison Dupont, too long to compare them in my head, but there's actually a bottle of it in my fridge. I'll have to drink it soon.

    2. I wonder if you left Bam Biere long enough if it would start to approximate Fantome a bit more.

      Not exactly, of course; I just mean it's still definitely less of a "clean" Saison compared to a lot of other American versions. I believe the beer has a couple of strains of Brett in it, and a Lactobacillus as well.


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