As I stroll the aisles of my favorite beer stores this time of year, I'm surrounded on all sides by a flotilla of summer-themed brews, from cases of lemon-tinged shandies to six-packs of fruity blonde ales. These thirst-quenching styles do the trick, but there's a funkier alternative out there that happens to be original summer seasonal: the Belgian style known as the saison or farmhouse ale.
Here's a little more about saisons, and why they are the original summer beer.
Why Saisons Are the Original Summer Beer
You'll often see the words "straw" and "grassy" used in tasting notes for beer brewed in this style, and I couldn't think of more appropriate terms considering this beer's history. As the story goes, Belgian farmers brewed saisons (French for "season") in the winter and let them ferment for a few months so they'd be ready for the summer, giving their workers something to drink while toiling away under the hot sun.
Why Saisons Are a Little Fizzy
True saisons are bottle-conditioned, wherein brewers add a little extra sugar or live yeast to each bottle to spur an extra round of fermentation and extend the beer's shelf life—an important consideration in the days before dedicated beer fridges.
Bottle conditioning leads to delicate, Champagne-like carbonation as the beer hangs out at room temperature and adds spicy, earthy notes to the beer's flavor. In fact, certain types of yeast used for these farmhouse ales are specifically meant to be put to use in true summer temperatures—some of these yeasty beasties really dig it when the thermometer hits 90˚F.
What to Expect from a Saison
When you pour a saison into a glass, the thing damn near glows. It's so golden as to be almost marigold at times, with a dense and foamy head that takes a while to settle. The pour also might be a tad cloudy (think hazy, like a humid summer day), thanks to all that residual yeast in the bottle. If you're into the Belgian-style white beers, give this a try on a day you're feeling adventurous.
5 Favorite Saison Beers
As the weather heats up, you'll see more saison and farmhouse ale offerings from craft brewers, but I'm happy to see that a number of breweries are putting out variations on the style that are fun for sipping year-round. Today's saisons tend to be a few percentage points higher in ABV than their 19th-century counterparts, so take heed when throwing a few back on a hot summer day.
Here are five of my favorite saisons—some adhering to tradition, others a little off the beaten path—for drinking any time of year:
- The award-winning Saison Dupont is probably the most well-known beer of the genre. It's a touch bitter with a undercurrent of berry and stone fruit notes that you'll definitely pick up as you give it a sniff. Typical farmhouse ales get hints of fruit flavor from the Belgian yeast that's added during the brewing process, and have a tinge of hoppiness—nothing that overpowers, but all of which provide just enough layered flavor to be intriguing as it refreshes.
- The simply-named Saison from Yards Brewing is a stellar American-produced example of the traditional farmhouse ale, and goes a little easier on the hops than its true Belgian counterparts. Light-bodied with slightly floral aromas, it's a saison that keeps the essential yeasty taste of the style in a subtler form.
- Lost Abbey's seasonal Saison Blanc adds golden raisins for sweetness, white pepper for spice, and Brettanomyces, a wild yeast that brings a funky earthiness to whatever it ferments, for a tropical-tinged and brilliant-gold beer. (Their Red Barn Ale, a year-round offering, gets ginger and orange peel for a witbier-inspired take on the farmhouse ale style.)
- If you can get your hands on a bottle of Sour Apple Saison produced by Utah's Epic Brewing, you'll be able to sample a beer that's a cross between an earthy farmhouse ale and a crisp, dry Basque cider. It tastes nothing like a Jolly Rancher, in case you're pre-emptively avoiding this one—the apple notes come through as a tart finish, but there's nothing sugary about this saison.
- And for a beer that harkens to the early (and chilly) days of spring, try Grand Arbor from Southern Tier Brewing in upstate New York; it incorporates maple syrup from Big Tree Maple, a farm "literally across the road from us" as it says on the bottle label, to spark the in-bottle fermentation. The maple comes through with a malty breadiness that gives this ale a deeper flavor than its brethren.
(Image credits: Casey Barber)