Stouts, porters, and barley wines are not ideal choices for hot weather. My summer drinking is heavily focused on wheat beers, saisons and IPAs (of course, my drinking is pretty much always focused on IPAs, as that’s my favorite style).
But I want to highlight the saison here, which is probably my second favorite style. Saison is the French word for “season”. It originated in the French-speaking region of Belgium and was brewed by farmers to be consumed during the summer harvest season. That also explains the other common term for the style: Belgian farmhouse ale. These were beers brewed with whatever ingredients the farmers had on hand, sometimes including spices, and lacking both the refrigeration and sterile conditions of commercial brewing operations. So wild yeasts would have played a part, as did high fermentation temperatures. The beers would have thus been quite tart, funky, fruity and spicy.
Most Americans’ first foray into the world of saisons is Hennepin, brewed by Brewery Ommegang in New York. If you’ve ever tried that beer, you may be thinking it doesn’t taste much like my description above. It does have fruit and spice notes, but it’s certainly not tart or funky. Hennepin is a very enjoyable beer, but I think of it as a saison with training wheels. It’s closer to my ideal of a Belgian strong pale ale than to my ideal of a saison.
When you’re ready to shed the training wheels, your next move should be to grab the beer that most consider the quintessential modern example of the style, Saison Dupont, brewed in Belgium. It has everything Hennepin has, but with more complexity and a subtle tart edge. It’s surprisingly hoppy, with lots of zesty, herbal notes. It still doesn’t rise to my ideal for a saison, but it deserves its stellar reputation.
Hanging in the same company as Saison Dupont is a relatively new seasonal from Great Divide, Colette. It uses a blend of four different yeasts for a complex, earthy, slightly funky flavor.
Also of note is the inclusion of both rice and wheat in the grain bill. I held onto some of last year’s batch and sampled one this year, and I can tell you it gets even better with age. A little more tartness pops out and it gets even drier. I’m going to keep testing these in the cellar for several years.
Another Colorado brewery with a saison currently available in Birmingham is Avery. Their anniversary ale, called Eighteen, is a dry-hopped rye saison. The rye adds a nice, spicy twist and, in spite of the mention of dry hopping on the label, the hops are relatively subtle in this one (at least by the standards of my IPA-drenched palate). Like every other anniversary beer Avery has released, Eighteen is available only in 22-ounce bottles and kegs, so you can only get this one on draft at a handful of places around town. And sadly, I will be unable to get a few bottles to cellar. Maybe the container limit will be lifted in the next legislative session and some bottles of next year’s Nineteen will appear in Birmingham.
Thanks to the special order savvy of the folks at the J. Clyde, right now you have an opportunity to try a saison with very limited American distribution: Saison D’Erpe-Mere, imported from Belgium. It’s draft only (that stupid container limit again), just a couple kegs were brought in, and it’s pouring right now. It’s a bit sweet for my personal tastes, but it gets rave reviews on the beer-rating websites. It’s definitely worth checking out.
I’ve referred a couple of times now to my ideal for a saison, so maybe you’re wondering what beer meets that ideal. The answer is most of what is produced by Brasserie Fantôme, located in Soy, Belgium. Fantôme beers are some of the most complex I’ve ever tasted, and many have a prominent tartness that is incredibly refreshing. Much to my chagrin, Fantôme does not currently distribute beer in Alabama. It’s a tiny brewery, and only a small quantity of their beer is exported to the U.S., most of it in 750-milliliter bottles (that stupid container limit again). If you want to sample Fantôme beer, you’ll have to hop over to Atlanta and visit Hop City or Green’s to pick some up. But call ahead first, as there’s no guarantee they’ll have any in stock.
There is something very close to a Fantômequality saison here in Birmingham, another draft-only option you’ll find at the Clyde: Jolly Pumpkin Bam Bière. At 4.5 percent ABV, it’s closer to the light, thirst-quenching sort of session beer of the original saisons than anything else I’ve mentioned here. It’s also one of the most complex beers under 5 percent ABV that will ever cross your taste buds.
There was literally not one commercially available saison in Alabama before the Gourmet Beer Bill passed in 2009. Now our options keep growing. Don’t miss out on this style that was intentionally designed for summer sipping.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org