It’s hard to imagine here in 2012 American, but the Belgian style of beer known as Saison was near-death not 15-20 years ago. Like many other beer styles, the rise of the American craft beer scene created an interest in Saison that brought this clean, refreshing Ale back from the brink and then some. In fact, it seems difficult these days to find a brewery that isn’t making a Saison of one form or another. Let’s take a look at a style of Belgian beer that has charmed the world.
Saison’s roots can be found in the French-speaking Belgian region of Wallonia. Farmers would brew these Ales in the autumn or winter for farm workers to drink during their long harvest-time shifts (this is why you’ll often see Saison alternately referred to as Farmhouse Ale). You see potable water wasn’t exactly an option in those days, and said farmworkers were entitled to as much as five liters per day (for hydration purposes, or for the hell of it) while harvest was happening. Because of this the original Saisons were around 3% ABV so as to be more refreshing than anything else, and while the strength of Saison has gone up over the years (most examples today check in between 6-8%) a bright, refreshing feel with a crisp hop character (hops act as a preservative, don’t forget) remain the hallmark of the style.
With Saison we’re blessed with many great examples brewed here in the U.S. as well as its native Belgium, but there is a standard of the breed. Saison Dupont has been brewed in the same farmhouse since 1844 and is one of a precious few beers that perfectly represent what their style should be. Dupont has fresh wheat notes with a subtle hoppy backbone and a slightly floral finish. Above all else, Saison Dupont is a joy to drink; it’s a beer that is welcome and fantastic to have anytime of the year and one of only a handful of beers I know of that just about everyone who is into beer can always agree on.
Dupont also make a holiday season version called Avec Les Bons Voeux that is stronger at 9% and well worth seeking out. For Belgians, I also recommend Urthel Saisonniere. Here in America, there is a seemingly endless list of great Saison-style beers available. Brooklyn Sorachi Ace is a favorite, featuring the Japanese Sorachi Ace hop and a more floral character with slightly more assertive hops than usual. Heavy Seas Red Sky At Night from Baltimore is available during the summer months, as it tradition, and usually sells out fast so if you find it, jump on it.
Stillwater Ales has made an art of Saison-inspired beers; their American Farmhouse Ale is a delight and Debutante, with its rye malt and use of heather and honeysuckle, is a revelation. Ommegang Hennepin is a legend and can be found all year. The Bruery Saison Rue is brewed every season and mixes rye malt and brettanomyces to make things more interesting. Smuttynose Farmhouse Ale is a more-than-solid straightforward take on the style. Among the more intriguing, though, is Saison du Buff made in an epic collaboration between Dogfish Head, Stone, and Victory brewing companies. Each brewery makes their own version of the beer, and each has their own qualities. It’s a fascinating experiment if you can gather all three for a tasting session. Expect to start seeing the new releases of Saison du Buff in the next couple of months.
Until next time. Cheers!