Tap This: Spring is the season for saison: A drinkable, flavorful Belgian
With spring in the air — maybe not visible on the thermometer or with the sheer volume of snow still on the ground — there is one specific style of beer that reigns supreme this season. The saison is the perfect spring season beer, but what exactly is it and where does it come from?
Brief History: The saison style comes from Europe, specifically the French speaking region in southern Belgium. The word itself translated from French to English means “season,” but not in the context you may think. The season referred to was the harvest season in the region, which is May through August. The beer was brewed to be a light and refreshing thirst quencher for those working the farms and harvesting the crops. So for this reason traditional saisons were lighter in alcohol as a drunken field worker would not be too productive, however higher alcohol versions were available. The style grew in popularity and became more widely available throughout the region and Europe. Saisons also grew in popularity among brewers and soon this love spread to many American brewers. This style continues to grow in popularity among craft beer lovers, and every year more breweries brew their version of this classic style.
Standard Characteristics: The saison style has an extremely wide range of varieties within the style guidelines. The typical color of a saison is pale yellow, but the color can enter into the orange/red or even black spectrum. The typical ABV for a saison is 5.0% to 6.0%, but again this has a wide range from 3.5% to 8.0% or higher. However, some standards for this beer which remain constant are that they are the fairly high in carbonation and have a dry finish. Also, like most Belgian beers, saisons typically are not overly spiced, but it is not uncommon for spicing to occur, the main reason for the lack of spicing is that brewers want the saison yeast strain to be the showcase and main flavor profile within the beer.
Nose: The aromas are complex and can vary a great deal depending on the ingredients chosen to be used in the beer, but there are some key features that shine through regardless. The main aroma that cuts through is from the saison yeast strain — this emanates a fruity and peppery note that gives this beer its true unique and refreshing style. Other key aroma characteristics include fresh hops, light malt and whiffs of citrus.
Body: The standard saison has a medium body, but as you drink, it can feel a bit thin at times. The reason it may seem thin is due to the high carbonation. As soon as you pour yourself a glass, you will notice this high carbonation in the huge pillow-like head that forms leaving behind a thick layer of lacing on the glass.
Taste: The taste of the saison is truly unique and wonderfully refreshing. Saisons can differ wildly in ingredients and include tastes ranging from ginger to rye to black licorice, but these are not standard tastes within this style. The standard tastes for saisons are a light malty backbone; clean, strong hop flavors and a slight tang with a very crisp feel and an amazingly dry finish. This dry finish is a very important characteristic in the best saisons and is what makes them so wonderfully refreshing.
Food Pairing: The light and refreshing characteristics of the saison make them perfect for lighter dishes, especially those that have slight citrus notes with them. Saisons are a great match with salads, especially those with shrimp or chicken. These beers are especially good with fish, the more delicate the better. Salmon, sole and flounder are just amazing with saisons and so are clams and calamari. If you like more adventurous food, then saisons are great for you. They pair wonderfully with Thai and Vietnamese foods, melding perfectly with the spices and the dry finish, a perfect palate cleanser. This style of beer also lends itself perfectly to a wide variety of cheeses — even the stinkiest of cheeses have found a partner in this beer. So if you are planning an intimate evening together with friends or family and want to have a nice cheese platter, pick up a few choice saisons to pair with them, and your guests will be extremely impressed.
Recommendations: The saison style is extremely approachable by all, regardless if one is a newbie to the craft beer world or an experienced craft beer drinker. The style has been adopted by many American craft breweries and therefore is widely available in the United States, but some are much better than others. So the question is: What are the best examples of this style? Here are a few to get started with to get an introduction to the style:
Brasserie Dupont: Saison Dupont; Boulevard Brewing: Tank 7; Brasserie Fantôme: Fantôme Saison, The Lost Abbey: Carnevale; Stillwater Artisanal Beers: Cellar Door; Brooklyn Brewery: Sorachi Ace; Goose Island: Sofie; and Logsdon Farmhouse Ales: Seizoen Bretta.
After these are conquered go try some more.
Derek Warren is a beer fanatic, avid homebrewer and beer historian. Derek can be heard weekly on the Beer Geeks Radio Hour at noon on Sundays on WILK 103.1 FM with past episodes available on iTunes.