Saison is a Belgian style of beer that only through the persistence of Michael Jackson (the Beer Hunter, not the musician – both deceased) is considered a group worth judging at all. That’s because many would argue that the only thing these beers have in common is the geography of where they are brewed. Popularly referred to as farmhouse ales, Saisons come from the french-speaking, southern portion of Belgium called Wallonia. Monks in this region brew at least two beers that Belgian beer fans in the US would recognize, Chamay and Orval, but the exports from the secular farmhouses are not as popular here. In fact, I would never have known about this style if it weren’t for the fact that I ran into two of them in US microbreweries this fall – the Saison Von Boorian at Elliott Bay Brewery Pub in Burien, WA (near the Seattle-Tacoma airport) and another at the Triple 7 Restaurant and Microbrewery at the Main Street Casino in downtown Las Vegas. In August 2008, chefs from Rosemary’s in Las Vegas went to Beer Camp at Sierra Nevada and they brewed Pilot House S8zon. It was a real treat to have a pint of this beer when they brought it back from camp and put it on tap. I also had one at a Beer Works called Printemps Saison. Look for a Saison on tap at your local microbrewery between August and November and take a growler home.
Like Oktoberfests from Germany, Saisons are considered a seasonal beer that through the miracle of refrigeration you can now enjoy yearound; however, a US microbrewery will probably only offer these spiced and a bit tart flavors during the late months of autumn because they were traditionally brewed and stored for consumption by fieldhands who were bringing in the harvest. A proper Saison is a blend of at least two different batches of beer. The new batch that had been stored underground all year long would be too strong, so it was often mixed with the slightly sour remains of last year’s batch to bring the alcohol content down closer to water. Hops played a big role in the preservation of these beers but the hops from this region are not the bitter flowers that hopheads associate with their favorite brews. Instead, these are the lighter-tasting noble hops we rarely notice in our American pilsners. Similar to the wit (white, not wheat) beers of Belgium, Saisons would typically be spiced with citrus and coriander in addition to pepper and ginger. Because of this, saisons are often compared with lambics and mixing this style of beer with a Lindemans (peach is my favorite) would not be inappropriate.
From personal experience, this is an aggressive beer and the flavor is unlike anything I’ve tasted before. The spice is not ‘holiday’ in nature like you get with the season’s typical flavors of pumpkin and clove but instead it is a savory experience of pepper and wheat. I would heartily recommend this style to someone just being introduced to Belgian beers, but I would not suggest this as your first beer of the night. Open up your taste buds with a lightly hopped pale ale or even a Riesling wine before enjoying the complex flavors of a saison. Traditionally, these beers should register low on the ABV scale to ensure that a worker’s thirst was quenched without getting them drunk but because they are bottle conditioned today (yeast is added to the bottle to carbonate the beer) they are still stronger than a typical, American light lager, so (as always) take care how many you consume. I found that even an IPA was easy drinking after the fireworks of flavors in a glass of saison – perfect for enjoying on New Year’s Eve if you are not a fan of champagne. The Belgian bottles come in a bottle with a cork and a cage, so you can still have that satisfying ‘pop’ associated with celebration. Here is a list of a brews to look for while shopping.
- Hennepin (Ommegang)
- SPF 8 Farmhouse Ale (Lost Abbey)
- Heavy Seas – Red Sky at Night (Clipper City)
- Le Merle (North Coast)