Ah, Saisons. A beer for all saisons. I promise that is the last time I will use that pun, but we can all agree, it needed to be used at least once.
Shortly after I left college, I lived in Chicago — I loved (and still love) the city, and it a was a great place to try to figure out how to be an adult with a bunch of friends. But one of the things I found living in a city that tended to be transient was that my friends all moved a lot. From May until sometime in July, I had friends moving at least two or three times a month.
This will not sound strange to anyone who’s lived in a big city out of college. Rents are high, roommates come and go, and jobs that seem good enough out of college can lose their sheen after a few years.
This meant that I got asked to help move quite often (and asked for help a few times!). And in Chicago, this usually meant lugging furniture from a third-floor apartment to another third-floor apartment, on a humid summer day, with very little air conditioning. But I never minded helping. Not because I’m that altruistic, but because of what I knew the reward would be at the end of the day. I knew there would be pizza, but I also know there would be something even better.
Beer. That my friend would pay for.
To have a beer after (or during!) a hot day of work is to know beer at its best — refreshing, invigorating, cooling and all with a blast of carbonation to make your eyes water and your throat tingle. If you’ve never had a beer when you’re hot and sweaty, give it a try this summer — you’ll be amazed how even a normally mediocre beer can suddenly seem like the greatest thing you’ve ever tasted!
But the idea of beer as worker sustenance is not a new idea. In fact, it’s directly tied to the history of the beer we’re looking at today: Saisons.
We work hard; we drink hard. In low ABVs, of course.
Saisons are often called (or in many modern versions, subtitled) “farmhouse ales,” and for good reasons. Like their cousin, the Bière de Garde, saisons got their start on the farm. Farmers would take whatever grain they harvest in the fall — often barley, wheat, oats or other cereals— add some gruit and/or some hops, pitch some yeast and add their local water.
By the time the following harvest rolled around, the beer was ready to be tapped. And the farmers’ primary use for these early saisons wasn’t some fussy craft culture — it was to provide sustaining nourishment for their seasonal field hands, the saisonniers. Each worker was given a daily allotment of beer, as clean drinking water wasn’t a common feature of many Belgian farmhouses. This meant that some farmers gave each seasonal day laborer up to five liters (!) of beer per day. This also meant that these early saisons were kept at pretty low alcohol levels. Most historians believe that the ABVs were around 4-5%, which was likely enough to kill off any gross microbes, but not high enough to have a field full of buzzed workers. Essentially, it was the 17th century equivalent of college kids getting paid in beer to help friends move, except with a lot less privilege and a lot more agrarian society.
Because saisons got their start in such specific and wildly different settings — recipes varied from farm to farm — what makes a “saison” can differ significantly from beer to beer. In general, saisons today are cloudy ales that are usually somewhat sweet or citrusy (though not always), dry (though not always … seeing a trend?) and somewhat floral or earthy. Depending on the yeast used or aging process, saisons can also be tart or funky beers, though that’s more of a subset than a normal occurrence. And in contrast to their forebears, today’s saisons usually clock in around 7% ABV, so please don’t try to drink five liters of them after a day of helping a buddy move.
From endangered species to powerhouse.
Like many older Belgian styles, saisons were in danger of dying out by the end of the 20th century. A combination of macrobreweries and world events meant a tiny region in the French-speaking part of Belgium didn’t stand much of a chance. Even as recently as 1991, the beer writer Michael Jackson noted the saison was the “most endangered” of the many niche Belgian styles.
But as niche beer styles began to attract more and more attention, saisons have found their footprint growing larger year after year. While initial saisons available in the United States were likely Belgian imports, it’s no longer strange — and might be expected — for most craft brewers in the U.S. to have a saison among their stable offerings. That may be because saisons have such a wide range of flavor profiles, and because they tend to stand both on their own and when paired with a variety of foods.
If you like light, effervescent beers that usually come with a hint of spice (and maybe a little funk!), saisons will likely be right up your alley. Plus, they make great options for both spring and summer — they’re light enough to be refreshing but complex enough to make for enjoyable drinking even in cooler climates.
So: Drink up! Here are five saisons (along with some honorable mentions) I think will be well worth your time this summer. As usual, I’ve tried to round up options that should be pretty easy to find at your local bottle shop. You will likely have plenty of other local options that are well worth your time! I’d love to hear what saisons you’re drinking and how they stack up to my suggestions. And in honor of the Belgian farmhands who helped this style come to fruition, if you have to help a friend move this summer, ask for one of these as payment — but maybe refrain from requesting a full five liters. Until next time — cheers!
5. Ommegang Hennepin (New York): This classic example of the Belgian saison (at least as we know it in 2016 America) has a funky nose that gives way to a light tartness and a dry finish along with some nice grassy hops. Pairs well with plenty of foods.
4. The Bruery Terreux Tonnellerie Rue (California): Somehow sweet and dry at the same time, this great option from The Bruery’s latest collection is super drinkable. It’s barrel aged, so not quite as carbonated as other options. A great choice as a table beer for a dinner with friends.
3. Anchor Saison (California): Widely available, this beer was the biggest surprise to me, as it’s brewed with citrus additions not commonly found in saisons. But it’s got a great, classic saison flavor, and the citrus additions balances nicely with the bittering hops and the grassy notes. Plus, it’s a good bargain buy.
2. Saison DuPont Vielle Provision (Belgium): This is classic of the style that most people state-side think of when they hear “saison.” And it lives up to its reputation — it’s dry, but the Belgian yeast it’s brewed with gives it a nice candy sweet flavor that’s not at all overpowering. It’s a crowd-pleaser.
1. BFM Saison (Switzerland): This beer is aged in old sour ale barrels, and you can tell — it’s funky beyond belief, and its lack of carbonation makes it almost cider-like in its acidity. This is a special beer, and one that can be both savored and cellared.
Other great options: Evil Twin Ryan and the Beaster Bunny; Boulevard Tank 7; Stillwater Cellar Door; St. Somewhere Lectio Divina; Jolly Pumpkin Bam Biére