One of the most diverse and varied styles of beer is the Belgian style of saison. It’s a beer style that was almost extinct, kept alive by Brasserie Dupont, and resurrected by the craft beer movement worldwide. Saison means “season” in French and refers to the seasonal farm workers (saisonniers) who would be given daily allowances of beer by the farmer employing them. Historically the beer was brewed in the winter and stored until the summer months. The diversity in the style derives from the varied approaches the farmers took in the production of their own beer, and in contemporary breweries, the diversity comes from the brewer’s own philosophy regarding the style.
When reading different recipes, and reading interviews with brewers about saisons, there are two or three variations on how to achieve the complexity. The first is through multiple yeast strains and fermentations with a simple malt and hop bill. The idea is to let the yeast do all the work in bringing out the flavors. The second is sort of a mill room floor or “everything but the kitchen sink” approach. The idea is to have a very complex grain bill, do interesting mixes of hops, fruits, and/or spices, and that will lead to the desired complexity. And the third is all of the above, the idea being to mimic how rural farmers would brew beer: a little wild, a little slap-dash, a little improv, and this is the root of the other name for the style: farmhouse ale. Even though there are different processes, the philosophy behind the creation is the same, creating interesting rustic beers for easy summer drinking.
The epitome, the gold standard, and the savior of the saison, is Saison Dupont. Founded in 1950, Brasserie Dupont is a small regional brewery in Tourpes, Belgium that brews around 17,000 bbl (barrels) of beer a year (roughly half the size of Ska Brewing here in Durango), but its saison has been turning heads worldwide since the 1980s when the American market discovered this unique take on beer. It has won countless awards and been named the best beer in the world by Men’s Journal, mostly because of its singular representation of the style. It’s simplicity in creation (only hops, water, yeast, and pilsner malt), but with complexity in flavors, aromas, texture, and appearance it is set apart from the rest of the crowd.
A good beginner saison from a price point and in availability standpoint is Collete from Great Divide. Available in cans, Collete pours a nice yellow straw color with a soft white head. Subtle peppery and floral aroma notes are foregrounded by melon and soft fruit flavors with almost no hop bitterness. It almost comes off as a high fermented wheat beer. Since it’s in a can, you can take it anywhere.
Carver’s has another readily available saison in the Sagan Saison. Pretty straightforward in style, Sagan Saison is yellow straw in color, with floral, and an almost alfalfa-like grassy aroma, with black pepper and sour dough bready flavors and a slight amount of residual sweetness.
On the other side of the spectrum, more of the kitchen sink model, is Almanac Brewing’s Elephant Heart de Brettaville, a farmhouse ale dry hopped with El Dorado hops, fermented with brettanomyces and aged on elephant heart plums in oak barrels. This beer pours a lovely pinkish orange color with effervescent foam, tart and fruit forward, with a little funk and hoppy bitterness hiding in background. A strong, almost perfume-like, floral aroma with a hint of tropical hops there, too. This beer is very intense, but also quite refreshing. I’d add that I haven’t had a bad beer from Almanac and most of their beers available here in Durango are along the lines of Elephant Heart: adventurous and strange.
I think the best thing about the style is that it achieves summer refreshment without being bland. It’s supposed to be a beer a farmer could enjoy on a hot summer day. As Marc Rosier, owner and head brewer of Brasserie Dupont, puts it, a saison “must be a good, honest beer. It should have character. It is essential that it has soul.” That is, I think, something we can all drink to.
Robert Alan Wendeborn puts the bubbles in the beer at Ska Brewing Company. His first book of poetry, “The Blank Target,” was published this past spring by The Lettered Streets Press and is available at Maria’s Bookshop. [email protected]