Rise of the ‘new’ American Saison

This is the original text of my column for the Burlington Free Press.  They published it under the title “A beer ripe for the season.”

This history of Saison as a beer style goes back before the 19th century, to a time when many different rustic ales of all different strengths and colors were dubbed “Saisons.”  The word translates to “season” and the beers were brewed over the cooler winter months to be drank in the summer months.  They were ales that were brewed a bit stronger in alcohol to preserve them over the hot months when most beer would spoil.

Historically, Saisons were brewed and stored in oak barrels which has a tendency to become “infected” with wild yeast strains.  These wild yeasts would sour the beer, and it’s believed that the original Saisons were tart.  With the advent of stainless steel brewing equipment, the wild yeast “problem” was no more.

When we think of Saisons now, we think of pale, highly carbonated Belgian ales with a distinct peppery flavor.  This pepper note comes from the yeast which is accustomed to fermenting at warmer temperatures, as high as 90˚ F.  Today Saisons are brewed in almost every beer-brewing country.

The benchmark for the style in generally agreed to be Saison Dupont which, according to their website, has been brewed since 1844.  I think it’s clear why the Belgians have perfected the style – they’ve had a significant head start!  Saison Dupont is a bright blond ale with billowing white head.  The air is filled with phenolics (a.k.a. aromatic particles) when you  pour it into a glass.  Hay, pepper, lemon: the classic aromas of the Belgian Saison.

But there’s a new variation of the Saison style on the rise across the US.  From Alaska to VT, brewers are tweaking the old style and are going back to basics through the use of oak barrels and wild microorganisms such as brettanomyces, lactobacillus and pediococcus.

I recently had the pleasure of hanging out with two of the men who are the biggest advocates of the ‘new’ Saison: Shaun Hill & Chad Michæl Yakobson.

Shaun, brewer/owner of Hill Farmstead Brewery of Greensboro, has been tinkering with his Saison recipes since the first few months the brewery was open.  He quickly harnessed a native yeast culture from the Greensboro air, purchased oak barrels and started brewing Saisons.  Some of his Saisons are fermented in stainless steel with a mix of different yeast strains, while others see extended aging in oak that has been inoculated with wild yeasts.

If Hill Farmstead had a flagship Saison, one might say it was Arthur.  Arthur has gone through some changes since Shaun first started brewing it, but now this “rustic Saison” pours slightly hazy and yellow like straw.  It’s brisk with a tart, zippy mouthfeel that is augmented by the tiny bubbles and high carbonation.  The classic lemon and hay notes are here, but the peppery quality has been traded out for a pleasant sourness.  Perfect for warm summer afternoons.

Out in Colorado, Chad Michæl Yakobson is heralded as the foremost authority on brettanomyces in the country.  He’s researched and written extensively on the subject so it’s no wonder that he’s a genius when it comes to brewing with brett.  His brewery, Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project, is located in Denver and his beers have just recently hit store shelves in Vermont.

I bought a few bottles of Crooked Stave at my local shop and thought I’d share my impressions with you. Surette Provision Saison is an barrel-aged Saison brewed with barley, wheat, oats, rye & spelt and spends extended time in large oak barrels, called foeders, with brettanomyces and lactobacillus.  It appears a clear copper-amber color in the glass and the nose is distinctly in the sour fruit category: lemon zest & yellow grapefruit.  Quinine also comes to mind.  The palate is sour right off the bat owing to the lactobacillus which produces lactic acid.  This Saison bears more resemblance to a Flemish sour red ale or a lambic than what I usually think of as Saisons.  Chad explains in a press release to BeerPulse.com, “Farmhouse brewed beers with considerable age, often more similar to Lambic/Gueuze, were known in some regions as Surette instead of Saison.”

The Crooked Stave Vieille Provisions Saison is more closely aligned with what we think of as Saison, and has that nice tart pucker of the ‘new’ Saison.  Paler in color and brighter in citrus notes and a lovely floral quality, it’s a new favorite of mine.

There’s a third champion of the ‘new’ Saison out there and he’s brewing all the way up in Anchorage Alaska.  I’ve met Gabe Fletcher, the man behind Anchorage Brewing, a few times.  He has family in the Burlington area and occasionally will turn up at my bar.  Gabe believes that “brewing is an art, and brettanomyces is king,” so all of his beers are fermented with brett.  He ferments his beers in oak and often will add souring cultures when the style of beer warrants it.  His “Rondy Brew” Saison bottled with brettanomyces has escaped me as of yet, but I have tasted a beer he brewed with Shaun Hill under the Grassroots Brewing label called “Arctic Saison.”  This came across as a drier, fuller-bodied Saison that’s pale in color, and bright and zippy on the palate.  If you see it around town, I recommend grabbing a bottle.

I’m really hooked on this ‘new’ Saison movement and I think others are, too.  They have just enough acidity to grab the attention of sour beer fans, and they are mellow enough to captivate the palate of just about anyone who likes Belgian-style beers.  Perhaps we should start calling this new style the ‘American Saison?’

View the BFP version here.

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