The Brew TM_BR_SAISON_FI_001

It’s springtime. The April rain is falling, the flowering trees are in full bloom, and the quintessential seasonal ale know as saison is hitting the shelves at the local beer store. The production and consumption of these dry and earthy beers are so intertwined with the seasons that their moniker “saison,” simply translates to “season” in French. These ales are typically refreshingly dry for daytime refreshment yet still spicy and complex enough to serve as contemplative night-time sippers. From humble beginnings, this style has become a darling of modern craft brewing. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

The story of saison begins in Wallonia, a region of southern Belgium that borders France. Wallonia was at one time an agricultural powerhouse, littered with farms growing all varieties of grain, and attracting large populations of migrant workers during the warm harvest seasons. Legend has it that, at this point in history, there was no safe way to provide clean water to the masses of workers that these farms employed. The solution: Give them beer instead.

It’s quite a genius answer to the problem when you think about it. Thanks to the alcohol, dangerous bacteria can’t survive in beer, making it a safe source of hydration. Since these were generally grain farms, all the remaining ingredients for beer-making were in plentiful stock. Left over crops from the harvest covered the malt bill and yeasts from the natural barnyard air covered fermentation. The beer worked as an employee-relations tool as well. Come on, who wouldn’t like a boss who gave them beer at work?

It’s important to keep in mind that we’re talking about farmers here, not experienced brewers like the monks in nearby Trappist monasteries. The farmers’ aim wasn’t to brew reproducible beers for production, just to make something that they could share with their workers in the hot harvest months. They generally brewed these beers in the winter when they weren’t busy tending to their crops from the previous harvest’s surpluses. Depending on the year and the farm, this could mean anything from barley to wheat to rye or any other grains they had on hand. Occasionally, hops would be available to add flavor and aroma, but oftentimes spices were added in their place. Fermentation occurred thanks to natural yeasts living in the air and the brewing vessels. This most likely introduced plenty of tart and funky flavors to the beers. Somewhat intentionally, the beer would remain low in alcohol, generally in the 3% ABV range, ensuring the workforce would be pleasantly piqued, not stumbling drunk. The beer would then be racked up into whatever vessels the farmers could find and stored until the workers came back for the harvest.

Come on, who wouldn’t like a boss who gave them beer at work?

Farmer to farmer, season to season, these beers could be totally different. The only commonalities among them is their intention, the general brewing process, and the wide range of possible brewing ingredients of the region. So how could a distinct stylistic classification of beer come from such a variable and inconsistent tradition? We have Saison Dupont to thank for this.

A dedicated brewery founded in a centuries-old farmhouse, Brasserie Dupont began exporting their flagship, Saison Dupont, in the early 1990’s. Exceedingly dry, with a bright vinous tang followed by peppery spice, this classic beer is a clean, complex, and relatively high alcohol (6.5% ABV) take on the saison style. For most non-Belgians, however, this was the first interpretation of the saison tradition they’d seen, and the only one they’d see for years to come. With its introduction to the United States coinciding with the rise of home brewing, Saison Dupont became the model for the craft beer saison.

Recently, however, there’s been a change in the winds. New, experimental brewers are pushing the limits of the saison style in a variety of ways. Some are producing rustic ales using techniques akin to those used by the Wallonian farmers of old. Others are using the saison as a blank canvas to introduce radical brewing techniques like fermentation on fruit, bourbon and wine barrel-aging, and intentional infection with wild yeasts and bacteria. In most cases, the only unifying factor between these beers is the yeast used in fermentation. Popular yeast suppliers have developed “saison yeast” in their laboratories that produces qualities akin to the classic Saison Dupont. As long it’s made with these yeasts, a saison could be anything from a peach-infused chugger to a 10% ABV pitch black elixir fermented in wine barrels and loaded with chocolate malt. Are these saisons as we’ve come to know them? Not at all. But does it really matter?

With the increasingly experimental and creative nature of the craft beer industry, brewing “to-style” is becoming less and less important. Many brewers are focusing more on engineering beers that express forward-thinking ideas and flavor profiles rather than attempting to brew the best beer in its respective category. Some brewers have even removed style classification from all of their labeling and marketing materials, instead simply describing the brewing process and flavor profile. The saison, with its wide-open historical definition, is the perfect vehicle for such creativity.

The Dupont-style saison will always be the archetype, but knowing the history of the style, it becomes apparent that no more authentic a saison than a rye-based, honey-infused American interpretation fermented with wild yeasts. The way I see it, saison is a definition of a general brewing process rather than a particular flavor profile. It’s an ale of Belgian inspiration, brewed with any number of traditional grains, fermented at least partially with funk in mind, and flavored with hops or spices. It should be brewed during the colder months and aged until the weather turns warm. It’s a wide open technique, a blank canvas for innovation, and craft brewers are taking full advantage.

Here are a few examples that show the range of capabilities of the style and how different aspects of the classic saison tradition find their way into inventive and unique modern ales.

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The Alcohol

Le Petit Prince, Jester King Craft Brewery

Austin, Texas 2.9% ABV. $9 for 750 mL
One of the most overlooked aspects of the authentic saison tradition is its low alcohol content. A new budding trend in the craft brewing industry is aiming to restore these low alcohol ales intended to refresh without intoxication. Jester King, a true farmhouse brewery in the Texas hill country, is leading the charge with Le Petit Prince. It’s a weightless beer with a mild taste of citrus and flaky bread. Whether or not the low-alcohol style will catch on with craft beer drinkers is uncertain, but as an homage to saisons past, it serves its purpose.

The Brewing Process

E.S. Bam, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales

Dexter, Michigan 4.7% ABV. $13 for 750 mL
Try as they may, most breweries can’t come close to replicating the primitive brewing techniques used by the original farmers. Jolly Pumpkin is an exception. Utilizing large oak vats called foeders and open-top stainless steel tanks for fermentation and naturally bacteria-laced oak casks for conditioning, these Midwestern pioneers are producing beers without the protection of modern air-tight equipment. E.S. Bam is a saison flavored with a generous addition of hops to give it an intensely perfumed nose of wild herbs and a gently tart flavor profile with plenty of barnyard funk.

The “Whatever is at-hand” Attitude

Cellar Door, Stillwater Artisanal Ales

Baltimore, Maryland 6.6% ABV $11 for 750 mL
The Wallonian farmers of old would have used whatever they had on hand that year to make their saison. Intentionally or not, Brian Strumke, who brews under the Stillwater moniker, created a beer that could very well have been a saison recipe from a farmer with an abundance of wheat in the barn and sage in the spice rack. A wheat malt base fermented with saison yeast and spiced with white sage, Cellar Door has a flavor profile akin to a traditional Belgian witbier. Its intense notes of sage and fruity orange accent a characteristic saison dryness and complexity underneath.

The Funky and the Unexpected

Fantome Saison, Brasserie Fantome

Soy, Belgium 8% ABV. $20 for 750 mL
Due to cruder brewing equipment and less standardized brewing techniques, the saisons of centuries ago would have been highly variable batch to batch and most likely produced unexpected results. The miniscule, old-fashioned Fantome brewery doesn’t follow the modern technological model you usually find over here, making their highly sought-after saison a surprise from bottle to bottle. This particular bottle displayed a very unexpected pungent smoke and gasoline aroma backed up on the palate with a pepper laced blend of over-ripe apple and ash. Wonderfully intriguing and unusual, Fantome’s saison feels like a remnant from an older age of brewing.

The Saison Dupont Tradition

Arthur, Hill Farmstead Brewery

Greensboro Bend, Vermont 6% ABV. Available at the brewery only. $10 for 750 mL
Authentic or not, Saison Dupont has been the inspiration for the majority of craft brewed saisons for years. Plenty have emulated it, but few have taken its individual parts and made them sing as harmoniously as the original. Hill Farmstead’s Arthur is a saison brewed in the Dupont style with a subtle complexity and flawless technique that rivals its fore bearer’s finesse. A sharp nose of bright, intense lemon lures you into flavors of tart green apple, white grape, and weightless flaky croissant. It’s the first few warm days of spring in a glass.

The Birthplace

IV, Brasserie de Jandrain-Jandrenouille

Belgium 6.5% ABV. $12 for 750 mL
This is a saison that is actually brewed in a farmhouse in Wallonia. It may not have been made with antique brewing equipment and doesn’t have a consistently changing recipe, but the rustic flavors it holds scream for authenticity. The nose is loaded with dried flowers and potpourri wafting through ancient barn air. The palate is earthy with a mild sweetness and bitter finish. We may not know what Wallonia’s classic style tasted like hundreds of years ago, but these brewers who keep the tradition alive in its birthplace may be giving us as close a taste as we’ll ever get.

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