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Belgium, the name inspires nostalgia in me. It was just a few short months ago that my feet were on the very soil of that most magical of countries. Though the entire time I was there it was raining, misting, or both I can safely say that I have fallen for the charms of this country nestled between France, The Netherlands, and Germany. Its cities are charming, its people are friendly, and its beer is heavenly. And saison ranks as my favorite style of beer coming from that misty nation.
Six months ago you may have been hard-pressed to find a good saison beer anywhere other than a specialty beer store. Indeed, you may have had a hard time even telling your friends what it is you are looking for. When I speak of saisons to many casual beer drinkers they have little idea of what I am talking about. Once considered an endangered beer style, saisons are once again growing in popularity. Their following stems from a growing awareness that there are other types of beer than the American lagers churned out by the big boys of the brewing industry. As people have branched out and tasted new styles of beer they have begun to understand that there is a whole world of flavors to be tried.
Oddly enough, though, an American behemoth brewer may have been responsible for the growing popularity of Belgian and Belgian-style beers. In 1995 Coors Brewing Company began marketing a Belgian-style beer originally called Bellyslide Belgian White. Brewed at Coors Field’s onsite brewing facility Sandlot Brewery by Keith Villa, the refreshing golden-orange hued brew, flavored with orange peel and coriander became a huge hit. Coors quickly noticed, changed the name of the beer to Blue Moon, set up a subsidiary called the Blue Moon Brewing Company, and began the mainstreaming of Belgian-style beer.
America took notice and realized weak, watery lagers are most definitely not the only style of beer they like. Thus began the slow integration of Belgian styles into the American beer consciousness. Still, 16 years after the introduction of a mainstream Belgian-style beer, Americans know shockingly little about the true Belgian beer styles. Saisons, in particular, are a mystery to the average beer drinker. And that is a real pity, because of all the styles produced by Belgium, saisons may be the most interesting. The history of them certainly is.
Brewed in the southern, French-speaking region of Belgium called Wallonia, saisons – the French word for seasons — were originally intended as refreshing, restorative beers to be served to the field hands working the farms. The field hands were entitled by law to as much as five liters per day due to the lack of potable water in Europe. The beers were brewed by farmers and no two were alike, thus they became known as “farmhouse ales.” Recipes were handed down from father to son and became tradition. These ales were brewed in the late winter and early spring in order to remain fresh for the summer season.
Just like many Belgian beers, saisons could have any number of ingredients from candi sugar to wild honey. The style maintains a hoppier profile than most Belgian beers due to the higher hops content added as preservatives but still remain refreshing and thirst-quenching due to lower alcohol content, originally between 3% and 5%. Today’s saisons tend to have higher alcohol content generally in the 6% to 9% range.
The distinctive flavors of saisons are a result of the ingredients the brewer used but is also heavily influenced by the wild strains of yeast used. These wild yeast strains add a complexity to the beer approaching, if not exceeding that of fine wine. The yeast, along with pilsner malt, lends the beer a dryness and crispness reminiscent of Champaign. Saisons are often described as fruity and spicy since the addition of citrus zest, coriander, and ginger is common during brewing.
As a style, saisons are making a huge comeback. American craft brewers are embracing this refreshing style and producing it for summer consumption more and more. Local brewers are certainly kicking up production of Belgian styles. Intuition Ale Works has three excellent examples of Belgian-style beers with a Golden Spiral, a rich golden ale; Dubble Helix, a dark satisfying dubble; and Shapeshifter, a spicy, zesty saison with hints of orange. If this is an indication that American beer tastes are turning more Belgian, I am one happy camper.
What I Have Been Drinking Lately
Ommegang Hennepin Farmhouse Saison
Ommegang is an American craft beer producer from Cooperstown, NY. The brew is golden and lovely when it pours and gives off the traditionally funky scent of a good farmhouse ale. The taste is well-balanced nectar of citrus and ginger that is lively on the palate and crisp at the finish. This beer is the perfect companion to barbeque fare as well as spicy foods.
Saisan D’erpe Mere
Brewed by KleinBrouwerij De Glazen Toren in Belgium, this excellent example of a saison pours bright straw color. The nose, while funky as a saison should be, also hints at lemon and spices. The mouth-feel is thin with peppery notes and citrusy front. This brew is very much worth your effort to find and drink on a hot summer day while sitting on the porch swing.
Dogfish Head Raison D’etre
Known for their excellent, if eccentric brews, Dogfish Head has produced this straight-forward Belgian-style strong ale. The beer pours into the glass a rich, dark amber. Notes of dark fruits, raisins, plum, and dark cherries reach your nose along with moderate yeastiness and strong alcohol scents. The taste is malty with raisins and figs. The mouth-feel is very thick and rich.
The traditions and styles of Belgian brewing are fascinating and delicious. The more you delve into the wonders that this small nation have to offer the more enthralled you will be. Prepare yourself for the coming Belgian and Belgian-style beers you will soon see on shelves near you. There are many more styles to come.
Until next time.
Long Live the Brewers!