Near the town of Soy-Érezée, in the Wallonia region of southeastern Belgium, stands a spooky little brewery called Fantôme. According to legend, the brewery's namesake (fantôme is French for "ghost") is the spirit of Countess Berthe de La Roche—who was kidnapped and murdered on her wedding night by a jealous cross-dressing rival—who can still be seen haunting the old castle ruins in a commune 15 miles south of the brewery.
Owner Dany Prignon founded the brewery in an old stone farmhouse in 1988 with the intention of making off-beat versions of Wallonia’s indigenous saison—a vague catch-all category of refreshing, highly carbonated pale ales traditionally brewed during the cooler months and meant for drinking on the farm during summer field work. Fantôme makes several saisons, including their eponymous flagship, a straightforward farmhouse ale that's effervescent and deeply fruity with bone-dry flavors of peach and orange flower.
Of all of Fantôme's offerings, two of the newest and, for me, most exciting are Pissenlit and 5 Sciences. I love the idea of beers made with unexpected ingredients, and Pissenlit is just that—a heady saison made with dandelion flowers foraged by Prignon himself. The 2013 vintage is the very best I've tasted yet, with a particularly murky and vegetal flavor. It's a perfect accompaniment to a crunchy Brussels sprout salad or an earthy celery root remoulade. 5 Sciences, on the other hand, is Fantôme's collaboration with esoteric Vermont brewing operation Hill Farmstead, one of the most innovative breweries in the States, if not the world. Deep burnt-orange in color, this beer asserts an almost honey-like sweetness, making it a seamless match for washing down grab-bag Halloween treats.
These brews aren’t for everyone, though. Fantôme receives plenty of praise from American beer nerds (myself included), but as a brewer, Prignon is notorious for his inconsistency. He rarely brews the same drink twice, instead adding ingredients based on whim—an affectation that, while indicative of his passion, can sometimes lead to head-scratching flavor profiles. Some beer lovers celebrate these eccentricities while others write it off as obtuse sloppiness. I find it endearing and I’m always excited to try a new Fantôme—it may not be a textbook version of clean, concise brewing but there’s little doubt it will be memorable. I’ve come across more than a few Fantômes that tasted unmistakably oxidized and tainted—but even then, the flavors were complex and richly rewarding. And of course the spooky tale behind the brewery only amplifies the appeal—especially this time of year, with Halloween fast approaching.
**Fantôme Pissenlit, 8% ABV, $17.99/750ml **
Fantôme & Hill Farmstead 5 Sciences, 6.5% ABV, $21/750ml
Justin Kennedy is a New York City-based food writer and all-around good drinker.
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