Saison is for people who like to color outside the lines. It thumbs its nose at the style police. You can brew it as a low-alcohol summer quaff or a high-octane imperial beer. You can make it from 100 percent barley or as a multigrain ale with spices and fruit. You can mellow it in wine barrels or re-ferment it in the bottle with a funky yeast.
The common denominator is that saisons are effervescent and crisp, full of prickly spice and fruit flavors, often fermented to near bone dryness. They’ve been quenching thirsts for centuries in the French-speaking regions of Belgium, where they were handed out to saisonniers — farmhands hired on a seasonal basis. Traditional versions, intended for rehydration rather than intoxication, might contain less than 2 percent alcohol, according to Garrett Oliver, brewmaster for the Brooklyn Brewery. “Beer was not entertainment,” he said. “It was a staple food product.”
Oliver was in D.C. recently to conduct a tasting of nine saisons for the National Geographic Society. The event marked the Washington premiere of Brooklyn Half Ale, a throwback to those kinder, gentler saisons of yore. Oliver formulated the beer, not for thirsty field hands — how many farms are there in Brooklyn? — but for the Swedish market. There, a government retail monopoly called Systembolaget only allows beers with 3.5 percent alcohol or less to be sold in grocery stores. Brooklyn Half Ale, which gets its pepper-lemon character from a Belgian yeast strain and Sorachi Ace hops, will have its American debut this fall.
In the meantime, you can try Allagash Saison from Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland, Maine. A plain orange label bespeaks a good, straightforward example of the style. Allagash has specialized in Belgian styles since its inception in 1995 yet somehow has avoided brewing a saison on a regular basis. “I have no good explanation,” confesses brewmaster Jason Perkins. “It was a long time coming, for sure.”
Perkins uses no spices. His beer derives its notes of black pepper, grapefruit and pineapple mostly from the yeast and a little from the American hops and 10 percent malted rye in the grist. Perkins adds some oats to beef up the body — A saison should be dry but not thin, he asserts. He also throws in some candy sugar to pique the yeast’s appetite and ferment to dryness. Like most American versions, Allagash Saison is moderately strong, measuring 6.1 percent alcohol, making it perhaps a little less appropriate for laborers wielding pitchforks and scythes.
Other breweries prefer to add more bells and whistles. Anchor Saison Spring Ale, a spring seasonal from San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing, gets an extra kick from lemon grass, lemon peel and ginger. Stone Saison, from Stone Brewing in Escondido, California, is spiced with lemon zest, lemon thyme and lavender.
Fancier still is Saranac Tramonay Rouge, fermented with Corot Noir grapes from a Cornell University breeding program. The sugar-laden grapes kick up the alcohol to a punishing 8.3 percent. The experimental brew gave the impression of a dry, sparkling wine. Look for it to appear in four-packs of 12-ounce bottles in mid-July, promised Saranac spokeswoman Meghan Fraser.
Gillian, made by Goose Island Beer in Chicago, is one of a series of farmhouse-style ales aged in wine barrels and fermented with fruit. It has a subtle kiss of strawberry, notes of pepper and fresh earth, a formidable alcohol content of 9.5 percent, and a piercing acidity more typical of a Belgian lambic or American wild ale. Goose Island also markets 750-milliliter bottles of Halia, aged with peaches; Lolita, aged with raspberries; and Juliet, aged with blackberries.
An irony of saison is that there are far more examples abroad than in its native Belgium. “You can go into a bar in Flanders and ask for a saison, and they’ll look at you like you’re from outer space,” said Steven Pauwels, Belgian-born brewmaster for Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, Missouri. Pauwels brews a year-round saison called Tank 7 and does a once-a-year release of Saison-Brett, a version that undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle with Brettanomyces. “Brett” is a wild yeast with a voracious appetite for sugar that imparts flavors likened to those of leather, tobacco, freshly overturned earth and — to use a descriptor dear to Belgian beer lovers — horse blanket.
A recently obtained bottle of Saison-Brett had only a mild Brett character. “When it’s six months old, the Brett becomes dominant,” Pauwels said. After 1½ or two years, the Brett fades and the beer becomes fruitier.
Long shelf lives were traits of the original saisons. Thoroughly fermented, they didn’t contain enough residual sugar to attract invading microbes that might befoul the beer, which meshed well with life on the farmstead. The farmer could brew during the winter while the fields lay fallow, then store the beer until warm weather set in.
Here’s a second irony about modern saisons: The hardest variety to find nowadays is a farmhouse ale made on an actual farm, but even that niche isn’t empty. In rural Goochland County, Virginia, a 45-minute drive northwest of Richmond, Sean-Thomas and Lisa Pumphrey and partner Farris Loutfi grow pumpkins, berries, herbs, barley and hops on their 220 acres. They operate Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery. Their beers include Short Pump Saison Virginia Farmhouse Ale, a mouth-puckeringly dry version brewed with two types of rye for an extra-spicy kick. It has appeared in 750-milliliter bottles in the Northern Virginia market and should be even less of a stranger, now that the Pumphreys have signed a deal with Brown Distributing in Richmond.
The saison is named after a colonial tavern with a broken pump handle that was once a local landmark on the trail to the Blue Ridge Mountains. “It’s a road to the historical past,” said Sean-Thomas, referring both to his beer and the style itself, a liquid memento of a simpler, bucolic past.
Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.