True to its name, saison started as a seasonal beer style in Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia, brewed in winter or early spring for drinking during the late summer harvest. Yet as American experimentation in beer styles continues to grow, so too does the season for saison, now stretching year-round.
According to Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium, the original saisons of the late 1800s “had to be sturdy enough to last for several months, but remain a summery quencher.” So classic Belgian saisons, such as Saison Dupont, tend to be moderate in alcohol at 4.5% to 7% ABV.
Classic saisons pour bright orange-gold thanks to a complex blend of malts (typically wheat, spelt or rye added to a base of malted barley), perhaps dosed with souring bacteria or strains of wild yeasts such as brettanomyces, full of citrus or spicy yeast esters, and quenchingly tart.
Patrick Rue, founder of The Bruery in Placentia, CA, specializes in craft renditions of Belgian-style ales. “I define the saison style as a spicy, fruity, grain-influenced beer that’s effervescent and finishes bone dry,” he says. “Color and alcohol ranges vary for the style, though a roasty, black beer called a saison in my opinion isn’t a saison,” he adds.
“Saison is an approachable, food-friendly beer style,” Rue says, citing pairings such as smoked lox, roasted salmon or fresh chevre.
Another popular American rendition, the Allagash Saison, is now available year round on draft. Other breweries are likewise switching up the seasons for saison beers.
For example, Bison Brewing Co.’s Saison de Wench, brewed with botanicals and hibiscus, was shipped to distributors in February. And Anchor Brewing Co. has discontinued its traditional Bock in favor of a Spring Saison, available through May.
Some trends to watch include barrel-aging, fruit blends or herb-infused saisons. The Nebraska Brewing Co. Apricot au Poivre Saison Reserve, for instance, is aged in chardonnay barrels, while Perennial Artisan Ales brews its Saison de Lis with chamomile.
“Barrel fermentation and aging is something I’d like to see become more common,” says Rue, “especially in used wine barrels. The fruit character from the wine and light oak I think is pretty delicious and adds complexity.”
Rue is also seeing less-conventional hops being used for saisons, “which can produce some fantastic results. Saison Blanc from Lost Abbey uses Nelson Sauvin as a dry hop, which with the yeast character gives a really interesting and delicious tropical fruit and spice balance.”
Here are a few saisons to sample this spring and summer.
Allagash Saison is a lively rendition of the Belgian saison, pouring bright gold into a tulip glass with a generous crown of fine-bubbled foam. Brewed with a two-row malt blend, malted rye, oats and dark Belgian candi sugar, it is hopped with Tettnang, Bravo and Cascade hops. Fermented with a traditional saison yeast strain, the ale has a spicy nose with hints of grapefruit in the aroma. Citrus and peppery notes yield to a tart, refreshing finish. (Allagash Brewing Co., Portland, ME)
Bruery Saison de Lente is available during the Lenten season through the end of May. It’s based on a classic Belgian saison, pouring sunny gold and evenly effervescent, with slight funk from wild yeast balanced by sweet hints of tangerine citrus. It’s moderately strong at 6.5% ABV, and makes a convivial match to grilled seafood, roasted vegetables, or aged, rind-washed cheeses. (The Bruery, Placentia, CA)
Anchor Saison Spring Ale adds fruit and spice to the saison beer style. Roasted Belgian wheat malt is enhanced by the clove-like flavors from locally cultured saison-style yeast. Anchor Brewing chose three California-grown ingredients—lemongrass, lemon peel, and ginger. The spicy edge is accented by peppery, higher alcohol, at 7.5% ABV. Try pairing with Thai-spice grilled shrimp, cucumber and mango salad. Available in 6-packs and draught. (Anchor Brewing Co., San Francisco, CA)
Perennial Saison de Lis is a light, drinkable, straw-colored saison brewed with pale malt and chamomile flowers. Fermented with a traditional saison yeast strain, the ale has warm spice notes that dovetail perfectly with the floral aromatics of the chamomile. Finishes with hints of tart apple and refreshing at 5% ABV. Makes an excellent pair with salads such as mesclun greens with toasted pecans and sliced strawberries, or seafood such as mussels or seared scallops. Available year-round in 1/6 barrels and 750-ml. bottles. A new saison released in April, Regalia, features secondary fermentation with two different strains of brettanomyces for decided dryness and some funk. (Perennial Artisan Ales, St. Louis, MO)
Victory Swing Session Saison is brewed with a certified saison yeast, Pilsner malts and Hallertau, Tettnang, Cascade, Citra and Simcoe hops. To amplify the impressions of spice and citrus in this low-gravity 4.5% ABV ale, Victory adds Sichuan peppercorns and tart lemon zest. The total effect is refreshing, assertive and brightly satisfying. (Victory Brewing Co., Downington, PA)
Boulder Honey of a Saison is rich with honey flavor and weighing in at 11.5% ABV, this ale brewed with French saison yeast features estery aromas against the honey and malt base. Champagne yeast is used to complete fermentation and create a mousse-like carbonation and sparkling, dry finish. Mild hopping (just 25 IBUs) lets the honey and yeast flavors dominate. A seamless match with apple desserts, caramelize grapes and warmed chevre. (Boulder Brewing Co., Boulder, CO)
Ommegang Glimmerglass A new spring saison, Glimmerglass is named in homage to Cooperstown New York’s pristine Otsego Lake. “Glimmerglass” was the name given to the lake in the historical novels by author James Fenimore Cooper. Using a blend of base malt and white wheat, Glimmerglass is brewed with saison yeast, hopped with Bravo, Styrian Golding, Columbus and Cascade hops, spiced with pink peppercorns and sweet orange peel, and bottle conditioned with Ommegang’s house yeast. Aromas of pear skin, apple and citrus balance with hops and spicy esters, and the ale finishes with a slight peppery note at 5.4% ABV. Available on draft and in 12-oz. four-packs. (Brewery Ommegang, Cooperstown, NY) ·
Lucy Saunders is the author of Dinner In The Beer Garden and teaches at the Siebel Institute at Kendall College in Chicago.