"The most endangered species among Belgian beers are the Saisons. "That was Michael Jackson, writing a bit more than a decade ago. But, like the bald eagle, the rehabilitation has worked--it's time to take saisons off the endangered list. With a number approaching double digits released and available in Portland in the past year, you can't even call them rare anymore. We had three at the Oregon Brewer's Fest. Standing Stone had their version in town a few weeks past. Alex Ganum founded a brewery that was inspired by them. And then with almost no fanfare, Full Sail recently released Saison a Pleine Voile (don't say Full Sail Saison a Pleine Voile, or you'll be repeating yourself). Every time I go into Belmont Station it seems there's another US brewery with a new version. Oh, and for good measure, the venerable ur-saison maker Dupont released their newest product to the US market, Avril. The season of saisons? More like the year.
History of the Style
In a certain sense, none of these nouveau saisons can be considered authentic, because what defined them was a rustic style of production. Thus their commonly used alternative designation, "farmhouse ales." Jackson describes them as part of Europe's "industrial archaeology," dating back to a time when farms were only beginning to mechanize.
This led to idiosyncratic, site-specific characteristics, like Lefebvre, where the fired kettle is subject to winds. "If the fire was high [due to wind], the hot spots on the surface of kettle would caramelize the beer to a greater degree." In other breweries, beer was exposed to wild microorganisms, giving them a funky zing. Pipaix, one of the oldest producers, still uses a steam system (they call it brasserie à vapeur) and equipment dating to mid-century.
You get the picture--these were very small, ramshackle breweries (one has a sense many weren't really commercial concerns) that produced beer as unique and specific as the farm on which they were located.
A wonderfully romantic history, but not so useful in identifying style. With a scattered collection of unique beers, was there a style? Marc Rosier, brewer at Dupont, described saisons this way: "It must be a good, honest beer. It should have character. It is essential that it have soul." Whew--glad we cleared that up.
The lore surrounding the style always starts with the name, which is French for "season." According to legend, these beers were brewed during the cooler months and laid down to get them through summer--hence "season." I find this unpersuasive, for two reasons. First, we know that saisons were brewed at all strengths: "children's" (I kid you not), "family," "double," and "regal." Dupont's new Avril is in the small example, but is clearly related to the family--the baby, I guess you'd call her. It is a beer to be drunk when brewed; at 3.5%, it wouldn't last a month--hardly something to be laid away for the hot months.
But the other reason is the yeast. Those who have brewed with the dreaded Dupont strain know that it is very hard to work with, and that it loves the heat. (I have documented my foibles here.) The yeast loves temperatures over 80 degrees--purportedly even as hot as 90 (!). And yet they didn't brew in the summer? Makes no sense. (Alex Ganum, though he uses a different saison strain, has commented that he's got to keep it pretty warm, too.)
The New Saisons
In any case, there appear to be a few hallmarks to the style. Generally robust, they have the fruity-ester character of ales--often tending toward citrus and specifically lemon--but also a long, dry finish due to incredible attenuation. They are likely to have a bit of lactic zestiness, sometimes even a mild brett quality, but aren't funky. Most are pretty-well hopped and have a spicy quality. Even though they're on the biggish side (6-7%), they aren't heavy. Finally, effervescence is key--they should roil with a vigorous bead and sport a pillowy head.
A lot of the saisons I've tried over the years have seemed more like biere de gardes, their cousin from across the French border. That style is heavier and sweeter, lacking the hop character and that lovely dry finish. One shouldn't be a fanatic about style, but those qualities that make a saison so lovely are so rare as to be cherished and savored. I can't really criticize a sweeter saison, but I do like finding ones closer to the original.
Fortunately, the ones I've tasted lately are far closer to my sense of the style, and far more tasty and interesting. I hope to come back again and again to newer version of the style, but here are four recent examples, just to demonstrate the range.
- Saison a Pleine Voile. I believe this beer is part of Full Sail's Brewer's Share program, where assistant brewers get to man the kettle and brew whatever their hearts desire. John Harris mentioned it a couple of months ago, but I don't remember the details. Unfortunately, I didn't take notes when I had this last week at the Pilsner Room, so what follows is impressionistic. It followed the style in the key ways--cloudy golden, a thick, creamy head (though not a huge amount of effervescence), and a rich, spicy-yeasty aroma. Based on the bead, it didn't surprise me to find that it was thicker and creamier than I expected, but it was still quite dry. It was nicely hopped, spicy, yet very approachable. I must go back for a second taste--it was wonderful.
- Boulevard Tank 7. I could find very little information about this beer, which I tried at Belmont Station. Boulevard does a regular saison, and I'm not sure how this one deviated from it. This beer, too hit most of the marks for a "typical" saison. Yeasty nose marked by a fair bit of lemon. An austere, bone dry, alcoholic example. It has insistent hopping, and this combines with that dryness, which seemed the result of brettanomyces--think aged Orval--to produce a rather sharp-elbowed beer. One admires it more than enjoys it. But admire it I did.
- Upright Seven. Although all the Upright beers are sort of farmhousey, this one is what I'd describe as the most like a typical saison. (And I use that word, again, with all due caution.) Upright's yeast is softer than Dupont's, and although the beers finish out very dryly, the fruity esters still dominate. An orangey, lively beer with a dense, creamy head, it also sports pronounced hopping. (Magnums to bitter--as is the case with all the beers but Four--as well as Mount Rainier, Liberty, and Hallertauer.) Yet it does finish crisply. I haven't had it since visiting the brewery, and need to try it again, too.
- Standing Stone Saison. To repeat a review from late May: The head was creamy and sustained and lacing decorated my glass as I drew, with regret, to the end. The aroma hints at the flavor--phenols and spice, and an interesting yeast character. It's a dense beer and not particularly effervescent, yet though it's heavy, it doesn't cloy. The first sweet note gives way to phenols, an almost minty note, and pepper. Given the heavy body, you think it can't finish dryly--with my first sip I feared the Ardennes effect--but it does. There are hops enough to clip any sweetness in the aftertaste, and you're left with a crisp finish.
The upshot? The 2009 crop of saisons has been amazing. And I hope we don't stop seeing them anytime soon.
Great Beers of Belgium, 3rd Ed. He may actually have written the words when the first edition of the book came out in '91, but I don't have a copy. Anyway, you get the picture.