A Few Words on Saisons

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My first saison felt like a mistake. It was weird. I figured maybe it had gone bad - something was messed up, because why are there cloves in this and why is it so carbonated and EWWWW maybe we shouldn’t be drinking this.

I was wrong. I SHOULD be drinking this, and after trying a second unrelated saison I realized that, SERIOUSLY YOU GUYS, there’s really nothing better than a cold and perfectly crafted saison.

We can thank French-speaking Belgians for the style, which originated during the farming off-seasons and stored for hotter weather. (“Saison” means “season” in French.) Originally, there was no true “saison” style - it was a term used to describe these farmhouse summer refreshers, not a taste profile - but now the description has been standardized as a dry and spicy or fruity (and refreshing) ale.

The gold standard - both in tradition and taste - is Saison Dupont, a beer that ferments at ridiculously high temps (about 20 degrees hotter than normal ale strains) that causes considerable yeast stress. And while stressing out yeast might seem like an offense actionable by PETA, it’s responsible for many of the flavors we seek out in saisons - the spiciness and the fruitiness and high carbonation.

(Sort of related: the perception of off-flavors make saisons a more forgiving style for homebrewers, though only if you are willing to spend a little time or money making sure your fermenting beer stays super hot. I hate to brag, but the last saison we made was actually pretty impressive, a feat I’m sure has more to do with the style and yeast than my abilities to brew beer.)

While saisons have become one of craft beer’s golden children, it wasn’t always that way. The style had nearly died out, either through a lack of interest or difficulty in attaining the right yeast. Thankfully, imports of Saison Dupont revived the style, and now every brewery seems to have some kind of seasonal saison - the new summer go-to when brewers get tired of brewing hefeweizens, apparently.

Fun for brewers, and good for us. The introduction and celebration of what would normally be considered “off-flavors” means saisons run the gamut of taste, meaning there’s a higher degree of discovery and creativity in brewing and drinking a saison than there would be in, say, a brown ale or stout.

The new Odell Brewing Montage sampler includes a dry-hopped saison called Wellspring, which leans toward my sensibilities with great hop flavor and that always wonderful saison bite. You can get dryer saisons that border on a sour champagne, or you can get fruity saisons that are barely distinguishable from a hefeweizen. Even Blue Moon’s getting into the game with a farmhouse ale that tries to toe the line between saison and flanders red (and fails at both, offering instead a sweet syrup bomb that sits in your stomach like a rock).

Then again, maybe Blue Moon’s farmhouse ale was just another perceived mistake. Saisons and farmhouse ales are just different enough to instill a little surprise and discovery into the standard beer drinking experience, meaning where I saw a mistake in my first drink others saw perfection. It’s weird. But it’s no mistake - it’s just the way beer expresses its creativity.

- Corey Vilhauer