The warmer weather of spring has begun and summer is fast approaching, which leads to one major question. What is the best beer for warmer weather? The answer to that question is simple, a saison. While this style may be familiar to many beer lovers, where does it come from and with such a wide interpretation of the style what should be expected from it?
Saisons comes from Europe, specifically the French speaking region in southern Belgium which has a heavy influence upon the beer. The word itself translated from French to English means “season,” which was in reference to the harvest season in the region, specifically being May through August. The beer was brewed in the winter on the farms as a light, refreshing thirst quencher for those working the farms and harvesting the crops in the summer. It is for this reason that many traditional saisons are lighter in alcohol as a drunk worker would not be productive, however higher alcohol versions were available. The style slowly grew in popularity and became more widely available throughout the region and Europe as Belgian breweries began brewing their own versions of the style. As many Americans visited Belgium and fell in love with the beer they brought home with them ideas and began brewing Americanized versions of Belgian beers, including the saison. This style continues to grow in popularity amongst craft beer lovers and every year more breweries brew their version of this classic style.
The characteristics of the saison style has a wide array of differences within the style guidelines. The typical color for 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, they are the fairly high carbonation and dry finish. Also, like most Belgian beers, saisons typically are not overly spiced, however it is not uncommon for spicing to occur, the main reason for the lack of spicing is that brewers rely on the saison yeast strain to be the showcase and main flavor profile for the beer which intrinsically possesses spicey notes.
The aroma is fairly complex with a great deal of variety depending on the ingredients chosen to be used in the beer, however there are some key features that shine through regardless. The main aroma present is from the saison yeast strain. The yeast emanates a fruity and peppery note that gives this beer its truly unique and refreshing style. Other key aroma characteristics include: fresh hops, light malt, and subtle fruity esters.
While many summery beers have a crisp body and light mouthfeel this is standard for the saison although its medium body that can feel a bit thin at times. The reason it may come across as thin is due to the high carbonation for the style. As soon as you pour yourself a glass you will notice this high carbonation in the huge pillow-like head that forms that behind a thick layer of lacing on the glass.
History and descriptions are all well and good, but what about the taste? The taste of a saison is truly unique and wonderfully refreshing, regardless of ingredient list. Saisons can differ wildly in ingredients and include tastes ranging from ginger to rye to black licorice; however these are not standard tastes within this style. The standard taste for saisons possess a light malty backbone, clean strong hop flavors, slight to moderate tartness, crispness, and a dry finish. This dry finish is a very important characteristic in the best saisons and is what makes them so wonderfully refreshing. Barnyard notes are also a well known descriptor for the style so do not be put off by words such as: hay, horse blanket, or other such notes depicting odd imagery in beer.
Beer and food are essential, so what foods go best with a fresh saison? Saisons are especially wonderful with fresh seafood, the natural citrus notes unlock a variety of characteristics in the dishes. They also pair wonderfully with the Thai and Vietnamese foods, melding perfectly with the spices and the dry finish is the 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, a truly great match for this beer is Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove.
How about some great saisons to try? The style is approachable by all beer lovers and offers a wide array of choices. Here are just a few must try saisons:
Brewery Ommegang– Hennepin
Boulevard Brewing– Tank 7
Brasserie Dupont– Saison Dupont
Hill Farmstead Brewery– Arthur
Two Roads Brewing– Workers Comp
Logsdon Farmhouse Ales– Seizoen
Rushing Duck– Bauli Saison
Mystic Brewery– Saison Renaud
Brasserie a Vapeur- Saison De Pipaix
Brasseri Du Bocq– Saison 1858
Crooked Stave- Vieille Artisinal Saison