Part Six: ‘Tis the Saison
Some people just love to ask impossible questions. Like, “if you were stranded on a desert island and could only drink one beer for the rest of your life, what would it be?” I usually love to inquire how this absurd scenario played out that I ended up stranded somewhere I don’t want to be, but somehow equipped with a lifetime supply of my favorite beverage in the world (and presumably, a means of refrigerating it and opening it). After much cajoling and creative back stories of how I landed in this predicament, I usually reward the questioner with this answer: Saison.
Before I get into the explanation behind that choice, it’s probably best to clear up a few of those wrinkles on many of the foreheads out there by explaining the meaning of this strange word, “Saison.” Pronounced “SAY-SAWN,” it means “Season” in France and was originally used to describe any low-alcohol pale ale being brewed for the farmers during harvest time. Because the water wasn’t safe to drink, Saisons were passed around instead, albeit at a far weaker alcohol content than anything you’d find today. They were around 3% ABV, which is even “lite”-r than a Miller Lite. Although, flavor-wise, they probably had a little bit more going on, having been strongly hopped to preserve them for the months of storage and often mixed with previous years’ batches or even with fruity, sour Belgian “lambics” (we’ll get to what those are in a future column…).
At some point, some genius came up with the idea of taking this traditional Belgian style and upping the alcohol level significantly. The brewery Brasserie DuPont in Belgian then popularized this higher alcohol Saison with its signature beer, Saison DuPont, which is largely considered the quintessential version of the style, as well as the most imitated by both Belgian and American brewers.
The best thing about the Saison as envisioned by Brasserie DuPont and tweaked by scores of other brewers is that it maintains the drinkability of the original “farmhouse” styles while delivering a spectacular level of nuanced flavors and complexity, thanks in large part to the type of yeast being used to ferment the beer.
A good Saison is many things, but usually, it tends to be fairly dry and clean, with a gentle sourness, earthiness and a peppery or spiced finish. Carbonation is a big factor, too, usually delivering champagne-style tiny bubbles that add to the effervescence and crispness of the beer. Not to be confused with the similarly colored Belgian Strong Golden, Saisons tend to be far drier, slightly lower in alcohol and usually more aggressively hopped, although by Hophead standards, the Saison style is not particularly bitter, grapefruity, piney, or rough. The hops tend to be milder and more flowery and adopt more of a supporting role by providing aroma and body complexity.
Most Saisons you’ll find today run around 5-8% ABV, with the majority falling right in the middle of that range. Some of the better versions found in America include the Ommegang Hennepin (which is on tap at Bailey’s right now), as well as the North Coast Le Merle, the Bruery Saison De Lente, the Smuttynose Farmhouse, and the Bison Farmhouse. Traditional Belgian examples include the previously mentioned Saison DuPont and the Fantome Saison.
Now that you know a little more about the style, I can explain my desert island choice a little better. Imagine the scenario with me. You’re stuck in the middle of nowhere, the sun’s beating down, and you’ve got nowhere to go. If you’re anything like me, you, first of all, want to drink something clean and refreshing that will quench your thirst. Secondly, if this is going to be the last beer for the rest of your life, it had better be pretty damn interesting, not only because you’re going to get bored of it pretty quickly otherwise, but because you’ve got nothing else to do but enjoy every blessed little nuance of every tiny little sip you take. And finally, to stave off sobering thoughts of dying alone out in the middle of nowhere, it better have a kick to it.
So, you tell me, what’s better than a Saison?