As the story goes, Saisons were brewed by farmers in the French-speaking part of Belgium during the winter months as a low-alcohol, refreshing beer for the farmhands—les saisonniers—to drink after a long summer’s day working in the fields. But, as Bryan Greenhagen of Farmhouse Ale-focused Mystic Brewery points out, this anecdote is often mistaken as the definition of a style.
Several hundred years ago, most beers were brewed during the winter for summer because there was no refrigeration. As for the low alcohol bit, Greenhagen says: “I have never seen evidence of this (yet!) except the assumptions that because les saisonniers drank it in the field it couldn’t have been very strong.”
Today, Saisons and Farmhouse Ales are more likely to be brewed in an industrial complex than on a farm, are stronger at around 5 to 8 percent alcohol by volume, and vary enormously in ingredients used—everything from dandelions to key lime to rose hips.
If you take a peep at the Summerfest beer list (which features 25 breweries pouring more than 70 beers), you can see that these New England breweries have taken the Farmhouse Ale style and ran with it–in the direction of cider (Downeast Cider House will be pouring cider made with Saison yeast), lagers (Jack’s Abby brewed a Biere de Garde Rye Lager), and Saisons with a twist, like Night Shift Brewing‘s Rose Au Poivre, brewed with rosemary and rose hips and aged on pink peppercorns. Your father’s farmhouse ales, these are not.
The benchmark of the Saison style, however, is Saison Dupont, a refreshing, dry Saison brewed at Brasserie Dupont in Belgium. Michael Jackson, the great beer writer, visited the Dupont brewery and posed this question to Marc Rosier, who runs the brewery and owns it with his two sisters:
‘”In your view, just how should a Saison taste?”‘ I would demand.
‘”It must be a good, honest beer. It should have character. It is essential that it has soul,”‘
he would reply, with Gallic imprecision.
In that spirit, I asked several New England breweries who will be pouring their Farmhouse Ale at Drink Craft Beer’s Summerfest: A Celebration of Farmhouse Ales to help define Saison and Farmhouse Ale, and to explain how they interpret the style with their own beer.
BRYAN GREENHAGEN, MYSTIC BREWERY
“Saison is the third estate of beerdom. Lagers, Ales … and Saison.
Saison is only thought of as a style today because only a few commercial examples of it were left in Belgium as of a decade ago. Prior to the development of the true ales and lagers, farmhouse brewing was simply the way people made beer at home (and most beer was made at home).
“The tradition is to use ingredients from your own farm and ferment it with the yeast that lives naturally around the farm. These native yeast are typically much more like wine yeast than the tame ale and lager yeast that have been developed over the past century or so. The result is usually a spicier and fruitier beer due to these more wild and wine like fermentations. Because of the diverse possible ingredients and
“Stylistically the common features of a Saison are simply that they are aromatic, dry, with slight fruit and spice flavors. This is exactly what you get when you brew a mostly barley-based beer with native, wild, or wine yeasts!”
Bringing to the fest: Official Fest Beer, Vinland One (Indigenous Massachusetts Saison with cultured wild local yeast); Saison Renaud (Single-hop, single-malt Saison showcasing the Mystic house yeast, Renuad); Mystic Sasion (Classic Belgian-style Saison), Descendant (Dry Irish Stout).
HELDER PIMENTEL, BACKLASH BEER COMPANY
“I’ve always adored the Saison style for its seemingly infinite complexity. From the fruity bouquet imparted by the yeast and higher fermentation temperatures to the dry, tart finish, Saison is easily one of my favorite styles. I look for a Saison to be light in body with a good assertive spice note, melding with fruity esters and earthy undertones.
“When brewing Convergence, I really wanted to take a different approach to the style by introducing more rounded fruit notes hinting at apple and pear, with some slight clove. Convergence doesn’t finish quite as dry as some other saisons, but still brings some tartness with refreshing hop bitterness to the finish.”
Bringing to the fest: Re-release of Convergence Saison, Groundswell (Belgian-style Blond), Declaration (Belgian-style IPA)
SHAUN HILL, HILL FARMSTEAD BREWERY
“When we approach the Saison style, we sort of turn off a fraction of our brain and embrace the spirit behind the beer itself.
“For example, our fermentation temperatures are not controlled–and we are continually adjusting the hop additions and substituting whatever we have available–all of which are approaches that we would never take to brewing our hop-forward ales. As for style and interpretation–again, I too believe the beer itself is about spirit and honesty.
“It is a yeast and temperature driven Pilsner and, it must be effervescent, well attenuated, soft, and, for us, must incorporate some element of locality and terroir–Vermont honey, Vermont organic wheat, dandelions from our fields or microflora from our environment (in the case of our barrel-aged saisons). Likewise, we believe that the beer itself should tell the story of the place from which it derives.
Bringing to the fest: Vera Mae Dandelion Saison, Society and Solitude #4 (Hybrid Imperial IPA), What is Enlightenment? (American Pale Ale)
ALEX ZIELKE, PORTICO BREWING
“From tart and fruity, to crisp and spicy, to dry and earthy, the style offers a lot of room for experimentation. Many of the Saisons I tried while “researching” tended more toward the citrusy/fruit end of the spectrum with spices like lemongrass or coriander that emphasize that character.
“Since our first two beers both have citrus and fruit notes, I decided to brew our Saison to bring out some of the other qualities of the style with more emphasis on spiciness and earthiness, while still maintaining some of the tartness.
“To bring that out we brewed Saison Charrette with chamomile, Saaz and Styrian Golding hops in the boil and we also dry hopped with all three. Since this is a farmhouse ale, we also wanted to collaborate with a local farm for this beer. Alex got in touch with his friend, Chris Fisher, who runs Beetlebung Farm out on Martha’s Vineyard. We had quite a few options, including stinging nettle, fennel and dandelion, but out of everything he had, chamomile seemed the best to bring out the farmhouse character of the beer.
Bringing to the fest: Saison Charette (Saison brewed with chamomile and sarsaparilla), Fuzzy Logic (Weiss Kolsch), Rendition (Belgian Sour Wit)
CHRISTOPHER TKACH, IDLE HANDS CRAFT ALES
“Farmhouse ales, by their original definition, are meant to be thirst quenching, simple beers. When we had selected the winning beer for the Belgian Brewmaster award at the 2012 Boston Homebrew Competition that was one of the draws of the winner.
Yes, Commemoration has some spices in it but at its very core it is a simple, thirst quenching beer.
“Interestingly, our second farmhouse beer that we are bringing, D’aison stretches that traditional definition a bit in that it is a dark version of the style which historically didn’t exist but we wanted to play a little bit in the brewhouse and because we already had the saison yeast from Commemoration we decided to reuse it in this experimental beer.
“D’aison maintains some of the familiar saison flavors but because of the addition of the dark malt and dark candi syrup there are hints of unsweetened chocolate and a interesting mustiness that is typically found in Biere de Garde’s (another farmhouse style). I think attendees will find both beers very interesting, especially when compared to each other.”
Bringing to the fest: Commemoration Saison (Winner of this year’s Belgian Brewmaster Award at the Boston Homebrew Competition), D’asion (Dark Saison), Pandora (Belgian Pale Ale), Blanche de Grace (Belgian Wit)
DRINK CRAFT BEER SUMMERFEST KICKOFF PARTY
OLDE MAGOUN’S SALOON
518 MEDFORD ST.
DRINK CRAFT BEER SUMMERFEST
THE SOMERVILLE ARMORY
191 HIGHLAND AVE.
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