Focus on the versatile saisons

Brasserie Dupont in Tourpes, Belgium, the brew- ery that relaunched the saison trend.
Brasserie Dupont in Tourpes, Belgium, the brew- ery that relaunched the saison trend. (CRAIG LaBAN / Staff)
Posted: May 30, 2014

In 1988, Don Feinberg went to visit Brasserie Dupont in Tourpes, Belgium, in hopes of importing its Vieille Provision Saison, a then-little-known style of farmhouse ale typical to French-speaking Wallonia.

Feinberg was the American importer of Duvel who had cofounded Vanberg & DeWulf with his wife, Wendy Littlefield. And he'd been told by his friend, the beer writer Michael Jackson, that this special beer - a dry, spicy, yeast-driven ale historically brewed to quench the thirst of farmhands in summer - was worth bringing to America. But it was so obscure even to Belgians at the time, that Dupont's owner, Marc Rosier, told Feinberg they were about to stop making it.

"I said, 'Why?' " Feinberg recalled. "A beer that's bitter but incredibly refreshing, with drinkability but all the Belgian brewing characteristics we could want - I think Americans would appreciate that."

The argument swayed Rosier to agree to an import deal that ended up saving what is now considered one of the world's great beers. And the notion that Americans would embrace it has proved prophetic, too - even if it took a quarter century.

Move over, IPA. After decades of slow growth, the American season for saison has finally arrived, as the nation's ever-exploding craft beer movement has finally embraced it with fervor as the darling beer style of the moment.

"There are more saisons being brewed now in America than anywhere else in the world at this point," says Tim Adams, cofounder of Oxbow in Newcastle, Maine, a small farmhouse brewery that specializes in saisons.

With flavors driven by a hot-fermenting yeast, rather than the hop-focused bitterness of IPAs, saisons are typically citrusy, spicy, biscuity, modest in alcohol, highly carbonated, and quenchingly dry. They are also distinctly different from the high-octane sweetness and intense richness of many other, more familiar Belgian ales.

"It's so versatile as a food beer, in particular, it's one-sip-and-you're-hooked," says Adams, a guest judge on The Inquirer's Brew-vitational panel this year, which focused on saisons produced by 20 local breweries.

He held up a cup of unlabeled saison during the blind tasting and declared the ultimate litmus test.

"Can you picture this in a clay pot at the end of a field on a hot day and going to take a drink? This [beer]? All day long - forget about it!" he crowed with the kind of enthusiasm that meant just the opposite: absolutely.

It turned out to be the category's winner, HandFarm, a four-grain saison from Ardmore's Tired Hands that had aged in chardonnay barrels and with wild yeasts that lent it a funk-tinged tartness that rang as clear and pure as a bell.

"Would it be better with a little more hops?" Adams asked. "You bet."

The comment pointed to the diversity of interpretations that brewers bring to the style - a versatility that is ultimately both a danger and a virtue for creative-minded artisans: "Saison is an open style but it has regularly fallen victim to bastardization," Adams says, "with people just dumping in the kitchen sink."

Spices like ginger and a variety of grains were common ingredients used by resourceful farmer-brewers, writes brewer and historian Yvan De Baets in Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski (Brewers Publications, 2004).

"But Belgians tend to have a delicate touch with spices," Adams says.

Oxbow, whose lead brewer, Mike Fava, used to work at Philly's Nodding Head, tends to interpret traditional styles with assertive American hops. The Grizacca, a low-alcohol "Grisette" (a saison for coal miners) brewed in collaboration with ex-Flying Fish brewer Casey Hughes, is an excellent example.

Tired Hands' Jean Broillet IV depends far less on hops than on a complex blend of yeasts, from a standard saison yeast descended from Brasserie Dupont to wild brettanomyces yeast and bacteria already living in the old wine barrels. They work together for months to evolve and shape the beer - an exercise in intuition and patience. It's clearly working: Aside from HandFarm's two victories at the Brew-vitational (in 2013, HandFarm was named "best new beer"), the beer has been a hit on beer fan rating sites, ranking as "world class" on Beeradvocate.com and a "100" on Ratebeer.com.

"It's more meditative," Broillet says. "Oak allows it to achieve an expressive dryness without adding spice. Part of the beauty is not interfering with the process. We just know that in a month, or a year, it will taste good."

Gerard Olson of Forest & Main in Ambler, whose tropical and tart Solaire grisette took third place, agrees: "You're working with yeast, a living organism, so there's always some piece that's not in your hands. But if you do your part, you just wait and listen for when the beer's ready."

If one thing is certain, the region's brewers are clearly ready to give saison a steady tap handle alongside their more familiar porters, lagers, wheat beers, and pale ales.

"What a sea-change we've seen in the amount of saisons being brewed around here even since we began" in 2012, says Broillet, who is building a second brewery in Ardmore that will quadruple Tired Hands' current production by 2015. "It's a very personal style, and saison is the ultimate food beer. So it makes a lot of sense for a small brewery to produce."


claban@phillynews.com

215-854-2682

@CraigLaBan

www.inquirer.com/craiglaban.

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