The best season for Saison? All seasons. —INGRAIN, Summer 2019
STORY / Beau Forbes
There is no beer that conjures feelings of romance more than Saison.
Imagine: You’re driving a vintage VW Bug drop-top through the Belgian countryside, savoring the smell of wild herbs in the air. Your scarf is blowing in the wind behind you on your way to the archetypal Saison brewery, Brasserie Dupont (Rue Basse 5, Tourpes). Sitting down at the bar, you order an Avec Les Bons Vœux. The bartender pulls out a dusty bottle, the cork releasing with a vigorous POP!
The beer pours like a fine mousseux, fluffy and snow white, as it fills into your chalice. Reveling in the clean herbal aroma, you feel as if you are inhaling the full essence of the fields around you with every breath. The taste cascades across your tongue. Herbal hops meet pure pilsner malt and the most aromatic, expressive yeast character you have ever had the pleasure to taste. This is beer with terroir. This is Saison.
How dare such a thrilling beer continue to exist in this age? So rustic, so bold, and so nearly stamped out a mere twenty years ago. Two centuries ago, industrial lager began an indomitable march from Central Europe across the whole breadth of the world. Pilsner and its lager brethren exterminated one indigenous ale style after another, leaving few survivors on the European main. The great ales of Germany were almost wholly wiped out, and the rustic farmhouse ales of France also fell. But Belgium—tiny, little Belgium—endured. With her persistent commitment to quirky, characterful beer, Belgian ales survived. In an industrial-beer landscape that threatened to become a monoculture, Saison tenaciously clung on for life in the countryside and, as with most of the great, neglected ale styles of Europe, was brought to the United States by enthusiastic craft brewers. From there began a renaissance that is ongoing today.
“IT MUST BE A GOOD, HONEST BEER. IT SHOULD HAVE CHARACTER. IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT IT HAS SOUL."
— Marc Rosier, former brewmaster/director, Saison Dupont (“A Seasonal Search for the Phantom of Brewing,” by Michael Jackson, September 2, 1998, beerhunter.com)
SAISON: BEER WITH SOUL
At its base, Saison (meaning “season”) is a rustic country ale, the flavor half wild. Originally brewed to refresh seasonal farm laborers (the saisonniers), it has always been a country beer. The flavor is explosive, with loads of peppery, spicy esters from yeast and an occasional funky character from Brettanomyces. Saison is traditionally sold in Champagne bottles, the color varies from pale to orange, the clarity spans from brilliant to cloudy, and the alcohol level ranges from 4.5% ABV all the way up to 9% for special holiday bottlings. On the palate it is dry, like an Extra Brut Champagne with the exuberant carbonation to match. Saison is a beer meant to refresh more than intoxicate. Saison is more than just a beer; it is an IDEA. More than any other beer, Saison is dependent upon expressive yeast character, and the unique Saison yeast is how this idea expresses itself in the world. For lager beer, fermentation proceeds at an austere 45 to 55 degrees, the chill temperature producing a product focused on elegant malt and hops character. Lager yeast is like a well-meaning elderly relative who drops the house temperature at night to bone-chilling levels while you shiver under multiple blankets. Saison yeast laughs at the restraint of lager and blows past the relative warmth of English ale strains and their 65- to 70-degree fermentations. Saison achieves its most expressive excitement of character by fermenting at 70 to 75 degrees, but it’s unafraid to go up to 80 degrees or, in the case of the legendary Dupont strain, all the way to 90 degrees!
The origin of Saison has it as a low-alcohol beer, a super-dry quaffer. Consuming the beer fresh was not optional but mandatory, as the beer would quickly turn acetic (the smell/taste of vinegar, nail polish, and similar) if it were not consumed within a few weeks of brewing. Saison was a “right now” kind of beer, meant to be chugged after a long sweaty day harvesting barley, sugar beets, and Schaerbeek cherries (a sour variety used to make Flemish-style kriek beer). But then the lager wave came, and the refreshing ale styles that had been predominant were virtually exterminated. Witbier died and wasn’t revived for decades. Trappist monks had the sanctuary of their church walls to protect their ales, but many stopped brewing altogether. Lambic (including gueuze), Oud Bruin (Flanders Brown), Bière de Garde (French farmhouse ales)—all were on the edge of extinction as homogenization became the rule of the day.
Enter Vanberg & DeWulf, an importer of fine Belgian beer. On a tip from Michael Jackson (not that Michael Jackson; rather, the famous British beer writer), it began importing beers from Brasserie Dupont in the late 1980s. The charming style took off in the United States, and the nascent craft movement was smitten. What began as a crush begat a full-fledged obsession among American craft brewers. Today beeradvocate.com lists more than 11,000 examples of Saison; thirty years ago you would have been hard-pressed to find five.
THE PERFECT PAIRING PARTNER
So what is Saison today? It is a true family of beers. It is a style as much as it is a concept. It is traditional and experimental, wild yet classy all at once. Historically, Saison was (and is) made by farmhouse breweries. This isn’t sterile, cold lager brewing we’re talking about here; fermentation would literally take place in a barn. Brettanomyces yeast and its brethren Lactobacillus and Pediococcus would invite themselves over to play, adding funky notes and a quenching acidity to the beer. If Saison Dupont from Brasserie Dupont is the archetypal example of a modern, “clean” Saison, Fantôme Saison from Brasserie Fantôme would be its opposite—a wild and rambunctious ale from one of the most interesting personages in craft beer.
Now to the most important question: What to eat with Saison? For Saison is above all an extremely food-friendly beer, lending itself to a variety of dishes and cuisines. A lighter Saison is a delicate dance partner for salad with vinaigrette, while heavier-bodied amber Saisons can even manage to stand up to steak. There are two great pairings that rise above the rest, one firmly traditional and one brashly American. The traditional pairing is Belgian moules frites (mussels and French fries). The voluminous carbonation of the beer cuts through the oily fried potatoes, while the peppery, spicy yeast notes enliven the briny mussels (typically harvested that day from the North Sea). Saison and mussels is a near-unassailable classic that must be experienced, a lovely example of “what grows together, goes together.”
But if you want to go all-out American, there's no better pairing than chicken and waffles. The golden brown chicken, doughy waffles, and even the maple syrup are all “cleansed” by the carbonation of the Saison, leaving the palate refreshed between bites. Even the crunchy coating on the chicken meets a peppery partner in the Saison yeast. Finally, the acidic prickle of the beer makes a wonderful contrast in the shatter of the crust and the sweetness of the syrup. It's a perfect pairing that could only be made in America.
Ready for some taste testing? Check out Saison Stand Outs.