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If you drink beer at all, you may have noticed that Belgian-style ales have been quite popular lately. And while there are still a scant handful of breweries in the U.S. who are:
A). dedicated to creating these styles, and B). really good at it,
that hasn’t stopped a gazillion other breweries from releasing their takes on Belgian and farmhouse styles. Saisons, in particular, are a common outlet for professional and amateur brewers’ creative impulses.
Trinity Brewing Co. founder and saison enthusiast Jason Yester wrote an excellent article on the subject for Zymurgy Magazine, in which he explains what the heck a saison is, and some tips for creating good ones. Simply, the word saison is French or Franco-Belgian (Ben: Wallonian, most likely) for season. Hence, this particular type of farmhouse ale is meant to be created from seasonal ingredients, locally available to the brewer.†
That’s my understanding of the current philosophy behind saison brewing, anyway. But that’s a little like ascribing a deep philosophy to brewing scrumpy. I figure the pre-industrial farmers and whoever were like,
“I want some beer. What kind of grains and stuff have I got lying around to make beer from?” And then they made beer from whatever they were harvesting or could get at the time, including wild yeast. Which is why modern iterations of the style include strange beasties such as brettanomyces. Like lambics—which I’ll get to in a future post—saisons pretty much require brett to be ‘right.’
Some beer styles are very precise; saison is not one of those. Got a lot of cucumbers laying around? Throw ‘em in the beer. Trinity Brewing does.† Got pumpkin and some spices? Fall (l’automne) saison! Red wine and raisins? Sure! Port Brewing made one like that.† However, just because saison doesn’t have a lot of rules, that does not mean you can’t make a bad one. Oh my, but I’ve tasted some doozies. One important detail that both home and commercial brewers often miss, is that saison is not a sour style. Tangy, spicy, maybe a little fruity? Yes. Dry and refreshing? Definitely.† But please, for the love of ale, not sour. Lambics are sour, plenty of other styles are sour; saisons are not sour (Ben: Don’t mistake tart for sour. Saison can be very dry, and consequently the tannins stick out for a very puckery tart feel).
We’ve been thinking about testing our brewing skills on a winter (l’hiver) saison, but as usual, wanted to try a good example or two for ‘research,’ first. Lucky for us, two of the best Belgian breweries in the U.S., Ommegang and Boulevard, released a collaboration Spiced Saison. Of course, it’s no accident that these two teamed up; Duvel Moortgat already owned Ommegang, and they acquired Boulevard in October of 2013.‡ So now, the head brewers of both are pooling their considerable skills to produce some rather delicious brews.
Pour/Appearance: (Ben) The spiced Saison poured with a beautiful two fat-finger (my fingers, specifically) head full of Belgian lace. Some funk in the nose with a hint of spice, increasing as it warms up. The color is a sparkling waxed beeswing narra shade. The first glass was clear as a bell whereas the second glass was clear with sediment in solution.
(Meagan) Fluffy, ice cream-like head. Lovely lacing on the glass. The beer pours a rich honey color; very effervescent.
Nose: (Meagan) Hint of candi sugar, some spices, and the characteristic tang from Belgian yeast and brett. The last-pour sediment nose is very citrusy, with—somehow—both more sweetness and more hops in the flavor.
Mouthfeel/Body: (Ben) Mouthfeel was medium to thick, but the dry sensation caused it to feel thinner after some tasting, so overall, medium to thin mouthfeel.
(Meagan) Medium body, with a mouthful of bubbles.
Taste: (Ben) Hint of sweet malt, but a dry feeling nevertheless. The sweet could come from the oranges and lemons. Less saison spice than anticipated, however this became stronger as room temp approached. The funk was crisp and refreshing; not tart.
(Meagan) Yummy. Coriander, orange peel. Maybe some nutmeg, though that could be part of the coriander flavor. No hops at first, but as it warmed up I got more of the bitter notes from hops, and maybe the lemon. Caramelized candi sugar notes, and a bit of nuttiness.
(Ben) Overall, a full flavored, funky spicy saison. Great presentation and flavor, although the nose could have been stronger. The sediment at the end of the bottle was very orange-laden.
(Meagan) I seem to say this often about Ommegang beers, but this Spiced Saison is the best example I’ve yet tasted of the style. It’s decidedly Belgian and spiced, and the brett funkiness is neither sour nor unpleasant.
‡Snider, Mike. “Belgian Firm Buys K.C.-based Boulevard Brewery.” USA Today. Gannett, 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.
†Yester, Jason. “Saison Resurgence.” Zymurgy 1 July 2014: 36-45. Print.