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The bar for saison-style beer is high

The bar for saison-style beer is high

April 15, 2016| Categories: Beer Tasting, Events, News, Published Articles

As seen in the Burlington Free Press 4/15/2016 http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/life/food/2016/04/14/bar-saison-style-beer-high/83038952/

The saison family of beers can be bewildering. What was once a simple fact of life working on a farm has grown into a huge and hotly-contested category of Belgian- and French-style ales. Saisons can range from pale and crisp, to dark and dense and from barely fermented to high-octane.

To best understand saison I think it’s helpful to note that it’s really a grouping of beer styles, not just a single style. Saisons fall under the category of “farmhouse ales,” beers which were brewed by farmers with whatever ingredients they had on hand. The farmhouse ale tradition as we know it started in Belgium and France, where in the fall farmers would use some of the year’s grain harvest to ferment beers to be drank the following summer. Barley, wheat, rye, oats and spelt were all commonly used. Hops were used, too, if available, and spices might be added.

Belgian farmer-brewers dubbed their beers, “saisons,” which translates literally to “season.” When the beer was ready in the summer, it would be issued to the “Saisonnières,” the seasonal farm workers, in order to slake their thirst after a long day’s work. These beers were all over the map in terms of style and ingredients, but the main principle was to be thirst quenching. (As a side note, the French dubbed their farmhouse beers “bière de garde,” or “beer for keeping,” since it was held until the summer months. Bière de gardes tend to be maltier and less spicy than saisons.)

As the style evolved and modern brewing technology was implemented, saisons started to become more standardized. The malts used were paler in color, the average alcohol level crept up to between 5 and 7 percent, and a specific family of yeasts were used. These saison yeasts produce beers with a crisp mouthfeel, high carbonation level, flavors of lemon, white pepper and hay, and have a bone-dry finish. A hint of acidity is acceptable and harkens back to the old-style of brewing. Historical saisons were likely infected with wild souring yeasts and bacteria, which augmented their refreshing character.

Many brewers attempt to master the saison style, and only some are truly successful. The yeasts are notoriously difficult to work with and the bar is set incredibly high. It is widely agreed that Saison Dupont is the benchmark for the style, and the level of finesse that Dupont achieves is difficult to replicate.

There is a good deal of controversy right now surrounding the use of the term “saison.” According to Shaun Hill, of Hill Farmstead (Greensboro, VT), some Belgian breweries are lobbying to get an appellation status for the term, similar to European wine and cheese appellations. You can only make real Champagne in Champagne, France, and the brewers at Brasserie de Blaugies and Brasserie Dupont believe you can only make true Saison in Belgium. Out of respect, many American brewers choose to call their Saison-style beers “farmhouse ales,” a much broader catch-all category of Belgian- and French-inspired beers.

Brasserie Dupont “Vieille Provision” a.k.a. “Saison Dupont” (Tourpes, Belgium)

Established as a farm in 1759 and later as a farm brewery in 1844, Brasserie Dupont has long earned its place as an iconic producer of farmhouse ales. According to Dupont’s U.S. importer, the brewery almost stopped making its Vieille Provision Saison in the 1980s. But after it released this beer in the U.S. market, there was renewed interest in the style and it eventually went on to claim its crown as king of the style. Saison Dupont boasts all the hallmarks: flavors of lemon peel, white pepper and hay, a crisp dry finish and high carbonation level. Truly perfect.

North Coast “Le Merle” (Fort Bragg, California)

“The Blackbird” is particularly food-friendly, and has elevated many a meal. It carries with it a unique flavor that I haven’t found in other saisons. The best way I can describe it is honeydew melon. It has a brightness and juiciness that co-exists with the classic peppery spice from the yeast. The late beer writer Michael Jackson exclaimed it is, “More than a serious beer—it is outstanding…. Dizzying, appetizing, refreshing.”

Ommegang “Hennepin” (Cooperstown, New York)

Named for the famed explorer Fr. Louis Hennepin, this take on the style has a touch more hops than others. It also includes subtle additions of coriander, sweet orange peel, ginger and grains of paradise. When spices are used in the Belgian brewing tradition, the idea is to accentuate and augment flavors produced by the yeast. Spices are used judiciously and add a layer of complexity not found in other beers.

Foolproof “La Ferme Urbaine” (Pawtucket, Rhode Island)

This “urban farmhouse ale” kicks things up a little bit with a higher-than-average, but very sneaky, 7.8 percent alcohol by volume. Not only that, but it comes in 12-ounce cans, for optimum urban refreshment. But before you go thinking that this beer shouldn’t be included in the saison canon, La Ferme Urbaine is brewed with barley, wheat, rye, oats and spelt, honoring the multi-grain farm-brewing style of Belgium and France.

Hill Farmstead “Florence” (Greensboro, Vermont)

Here in Vermont, the absolute best Saisons come from Hill Farmstead, although Shaun Hill has taken to calling them “farmstead ales” for the reasons outlined earlier. In keeping with the spirit of the style, Florence is brewed with a portion of organic wheat which was grown near the brewery in the Northeast Kingdom. Furthermore, Hill inoculates with his farmstead ales with his house yeast culture, some of which was cultivated from the ambient air around the brewery. Bright and crisp, Florence is a beer which would slake any farmhand’s thirst after a day in the fields.

What’s your favorite Saison? Let me know about it on Twitter