Do I ever have a beer for you all today. I’m going to pull out my bottle of Magic Ghost, by the decidedly eccentric Fantome brewery in Belgium. When I say “eccentric,” I’m not kidding. Dany Prignon is the name behind this tiny brewery, and he’s a mad genius brewer of saison/farmhouse ales. Not just any old saisons – his are weird and wild. Funky. If Ommegang’s Hennepin is the only saison you’ve had….well, you’ve only scratched the surface. Fantome gets deep into the saison weeds. Speaking of which, I would guess that Prignon sometimes uses weeds in his beers. No, not weed, I mean weeds, like the kind you pull from your lawn. His “Pissenlit” beer is phenomenal – and I’m pretty certain it’s brewed with dandelions. Beyond that, the cute little Fantome doesn’t yield any secrets. Most American brewers are very forthcoming about what’s in their beers, but the ghost isn’t telling. Could be anything in there.
I like to think of the entire range of Fantome beers as throwbacks to what the “farmhouse ale” style might have tasted like a couple hundred years ago. Modern brewing is usually a tightly controlled process. Yet on the average Wallonian farm, circa 1765, no one knew how to sanitize their brewing equipment. Geez, no one knew they needed to. They threw what ingredients were available in the kettle, and let natural fermentation take its course. This allowed for the introduction of what we now know to be a wide range of microscopic critters. Saccharomyces strains are the most common yeasts used in modern brewing (and wine-making, I might add); they probably would have been present. But it wouldn’t have ended there. Strains of the aggressive yeast Brettanomyces would certainly have been in the mix, lending their signature leathery, medicinal, funky flavors. Finally, bacteria would have joined in the fermentation party. Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, and who knows what else would have lent a tart, possibly even sour, edge to these old-style farmhouse ales. Many of today’s saisons are great beers, don’t get me wrong – but they are often an awful lot “cleaner” than this. Rustic, yes, but relatively clean. Even standard-bearer Saison Dupont is, ultimately, a “clean saison.”
As I alluded – Hennepin is a superb beer. However, I like to muck it up a bit. Enter breweries like Fantome, Jolly Pumpkin, and Florida’s own Saint Somewhere, all of which aren’t afraid to open the doors and let the bugs in to play. Winemakers call this an “infection.” I call it delicious.
On to Magic Ghost. Would you look at that – it’s green. I mean, really olive green with touches of peridot. It looks quite like some of the absinthe vertes I have in my liquor cabinet, yet with a nice adornment of foam on top. This isn’t colored artificially, either, like some crappy fizzy yellow beer on St. Patrick’s Day – it’s a natural green. This leads me to the question, what chlorophyll-containing herb was used here? Ratebeer.com says green tea, and that makes some sense – but the green tea I make usually doesn’t look quite that green. I think it could be matcha green tea powder, as that gives a deeper green. In any event – behold, green beer!
Aromatically, there’s that weedy component I can count on in Fantome beers. It smells a bit like freshly-mowed lawn, with a pile of annoying weeds you just pulled. As it warms, I think I’m picking up some ginger. It’s not as funky as some other Fantomes – I can smell the horsey, slightly tart influences of wild yeast and bacteria, but they aren’t anywhere near as obvious as they can be in the above-mentioned Pissenlit, or even the eponymous flagship “Fantome Saison.” Warming further, its smell is similar to that of a good apple cider.
The grass and pungent field of weeds character carries over to the palate. There’s definitely some acidity here, but it isn’t sour, only mildly tart with an underlying flowery bitterness. I’m not getting obvious astringent green tea flavors and mouthfeel, so I’m thinking the tea was added in sufficient quantities to provide color, but doesn’t overwhelm beyond that. To me, that’s a good thing, as I’m never all that crazy about astringent beers. When warmer, it starts smelling something like cider as I mentioned above, but it never really tastes like it. From the presentation to the taste, it’s unique. That’s why I get excited about Fantome.
Fantomes are enough of a pain to get a hold of that I don’t typically think of pairing them with food. I think cheese will go, though, you just have to find the right cheese. I tried it with some aged manchego, and it wasn’t terrible, but the manchego did seem to amplify the beer’s bitterness somewhat. Perhaps something soft and creamy, like a robiola or triple cream, would work better. This beer is more on the delicate side for a Fantome, so I don’t think I’d want to overwhelm it with a big, intense cheese. For a main course, I’m thinking a simple preparation of seared pork with rosemary, and some potatoes and spinach.
If I’m putting my beer geek hat on, I’d say the original Fantome, and the Pissenlit dandelion saison, are better beers. But this was still highly enjoyable, and I wish I had another. Such is the way of Fantome, rarely is there ever a surplus of it. Check out the Fantome here: http://www.fantome.be/
Oh, and check out this last pour with some of the sediment – holy soylent green!