Thursday, June 18, 2009

Saison: The new American summer ale?

Yesterday I had the pleasure of tasting Terrapin's upcoming Sideproject. It was very young and still in the primary fermenter but I could already tell that this beer is going to shape up to be something quite nice. Spike's latest creation is a Saison - a style that has been around for eons in Europe but has just recently surfaced as the seasonal of choice among many of America's best brewers. 

In the past few years breweries like Lagunitas, Great Divide, Victory, and many others have released their versions of this traditional Belgian farmhouse ale that have been met with broad acceptance from craft beer lovers across the country. America's growing love for the Saison has prompted Belgian breweries like St. Feuillien to brew a Saison that is designed exclusively for the US market. Other breweries like Brasserie Dupont and De Glazen Toren have seen a steady increase in their US sales of Saisons as well. 

To take a step back, Saison's originally were low-gravity, open fermented ales with moderate amounts of wheat that were produced in the winter for the farm hands to drink during the late winter and spring. The Saison's bigger brother - the Biere de Garde was a higher gravity version that was a beer for storage (as the name indicates) that was consumed during the summer and fall. The pioneers of the commercial Saison adapted the practice of very high temperature fermentation as the native yeast were very slow to ferment at lower temperatures. In Phil Markowski's authoritative book Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition he reports that Brasserie Dupont ferments their Saison Dupont at 92 degrees F in an effort to attenuate the beer in a reasonable period of time. In talking to Spike at Terrapin, he is fermenting his Saison at 90 degrees - which is a radical departure from the typical 64 degree fermentation of pale ales. This high temperature fermentation not only produces a relatively dry beer but also leaves a wonderful bouquet of citrus and tropical fruit esters along with grassy yeast notes that has become the signature of the Saison. 

So why the recent rise in popularity for this little-known Belgian style? I think it has much to do with the fact that the Saison is one of the few styles that is massively complex while being light and infinitely drinkable. The dryness of the Saison makes it a crisp and refreshing beer for the hot months and the citrus and tropical fruit esters and the wild grassy yeast notes make it a rewarding and interesting beer for even the most demanding palates. 

While some of the best examples of the style still reside in Belgium with De Glazen Toren's Saison d'erp Mere, Brasserie Dupont's Avec Les Bons Voeux, and Brassiere Des Geants Saison Voisin, American brewers have come a long way and are making world-class versions of this old world ale. The new American Saisons are a shining example of the tireless innovation and creativity of craft brewers and, as far as I'm concerned, they are welcome to occupy our taps for the hot summer months to come. 

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