Serious Beer: American Saisons
Saisons began as rustic expressions of the villages where they were created in the Wallonian region of Belgium. They were brewed in the cooler early months of the year and saved to refresh and revive farm workers during the long days of summer. Saison recipes varied from farm to farm and brewery to brewery, depending largely on the ingredients that were readily available. Some were hoppier than others or used different grains in their grist. Other examples used spices to complement the Saison yeast's characteristic fruity esters and spicy phenols. Through all of the variations and variables that fall within the parameters of what could be considered a Saison, all should be crisp, refreshing, and very dry.
The American descendants of these beers also cover a lot of ground. Of the 17 brews we tried, some were malt-focused, others spiced, some herbed, funked, hopped up, and some were all of the above. A good Saison should showcase its yeast. The best Saisons we tried were dry, highly carbonated, and had a balanced bitterness. Others that scored lower weren't quite as attenuated, flatter, and at times heavy and lingering on the palate.
Saisons are extremely food-friendly and pair well with a wide range of dishes. Their characteristic effervescence clears the palate in preparation for the next bite. I like them with chicken, creamy cheese, and charcuterie. With the possible exception of smoked beers, Saisons are the ultimate barbecue companion.
Serious Beer Ratings
***** Mindblowing; a new favorite
**** Awesome, stock up on this
*** Around average for the style
** There are probably better options
* No, thanks, I'll have water.
Southampton Saison Faucille 2011 New York, 6.5% ABV
This one-off release has a huge yeasty aroma mixed with dried apricots and spicy rye. The four grains that make up the beer's grist (barley, wheat, rye, and oats) all show well in this malt-focused Saison. It's bone dry with a bracing level of carbonation. There are no over-the-top elements here. Saison Faucille's elegance comes in its restraint.
Boulevard Brewing Co. Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale Missouri, 8.0% ABV
Tank No. 7 begins with a wave of grapefruit and Juicy Fruit gum, courtesy of a healthy dose of Simcoe and Amarillo hops. The aroma is Belgian farmhouse meets West Coast IPA. There's a fair amount of bitterness, but this brilliant gold beer is extremely well balanced.
Lost Abbey Red Barn Ale California, 6.7% ABV
At first smell, this hazy yellow-orange beer is Belgian yeast and subtle funk complemented by citrus peel and a trace of licorice. Brewed with ginger, orange peel, black pepper, and grains of paradise, Red Barn demonstrates that spices used with a light hand can add complexity without throwing off the balance. It was one of the lighter-bodied Saisons we tried.
Ommegang Hennepin New York, 7.7% ABV
Hennepin is one of the more straightforward "traditional" Saisons we tried, but in this case that's a big strength. This straw-yellow beer is rustic, with a slight lingering sweetness that follows its carbonic bite. It's peppery up front with some honey and spice. Crisp and perfectly dry.
Stillwater Stateside Saison Maryland, 6.8% ABV
Stateside pours a slightly hazy dull gold with a tall creamy white head that clings to the glass. The smells of apricot, grapefruit, and lemon peel play off a sticky malt sweetness. The citrusy hop character isn't as prominent in the flavor, but is enough to provide balance. It's very effervescent and finishes clean.
Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace New York, 7.6% ABV
Brewmaster Garrett Oliver once said Sorachi Ace tasted like "sunshine in a glass," and that description certainly fits. The eponymous hops give this bright yellow Saison a huge lemony flavor and aroma that becomes more floral as the beer warms. This is a beer for summer. Very refreshing.
Jolly Pumpkin Baudelaire Series: iO Saison Michigan, 6.8% ABV
I never know what to expect when I open another one of Ron Jeffries' funky creations, but I'm rarely disappointed. iO Saison pours a blush red, almost the color of a Kriek, thanks to additions of rose petals, rose hips, and hibiscus. It smells wild and very floral, with aromas of hibiscus, strawberry ice cream, and a touch of mint. It tastes of fruit and flowers, and finishes tart but not sour. It's extremely dry with a prickly carbonation. Even in a group as wide-ranging as Saisons, this beer is altogether different than any other we tried. This wasn't for everyone, but that left more for the rest of us.
The Bruery Saison de Lente 2010 California, 6.5% ABV
Saison de Lente pours a brilliant gold with a rocky white head. The nose is full of big, Bretty funk, hay, and tart citrus. The taste is surprisingly mellower than the aroma, but the wild yeast character is still present alongside honey, black pepper, and earth. Grassy hops provide a firm bitterness.
Lost Abbey Carnevale Ale California, 6.5% ABV
Bursting with grapefruit, tangerine, and pear, Carnevale's aroma is assertive in the glass. Much like Tank 7, this hop-forward Saison showcases Simcoe and Amarillo, but the effect here is a much tarter, tangier citrus. Brettanomyces adds a layer of funk and complexity.
Funkwerks Saison Colorado, 6.8% ABV
Funkwerk's hazy gold Saison invited us in with tart orange aromas, a hint of pith, floral notes, and a caramel maltiness. It's got a lively carbonation and tastes very peppery with more citrus and smooth Munich malt. The flavors are bold up front before tapering off in the finish.
Rockmill Brewery Saison Ohio, 6.5% ABV
Rockmill Saison's aroma evolves as the beer warms from mild citrus into lush pineapple. The yeast provides soft vanilla and a whiff of funk. Spicy and earthy hops provide a counterpoint to the beer's sweet malt backbone. The mouthfeel is rather full and creamy but finishes dry.
Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project Jack d'Or Massachusetts, 6.4% ABV
Jack d'Or's aroma is its strongest attribute. It's very complex and brings to mind rising bread. The taste is somewhat sweet and slightly spicy. Woody hops and a hint of pine leave a lingering bitterness. It's good and dry as it should be, but could be slightly more effervescent.
Stillwater Cellar Door Maryland, 6.8% ABV
Earthy white sage complements the grassiness of Sterling hops and the tropical citrus character of Citra hops. This complex arrangement continues in the flavor, providing accents to a pronounced wheat element. The malt character becomes slightly sweet before finishing tart. This bottle seemed to be a bit heavier on the sage than previous ones we've tried.
Still Sippable, But Not This Style's Stars
Dogfish Head/Victory/Stone Saison du BUFF California, 6.8%
With heaping additions of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme, this collaboration brew is another Saison that doesn't shy away from herbs. Their flavor and aroma are unabashedly in the forefront. After cooking with and pairing it, I declared it the official beer of roast chicken.
Ithaca Beer Co. Ground Break New York, 6.0% ABV
Floral and candied fruit aromas carry through into the flavor. A bit of spicy rye hits midsip. We thought Ground Break was very tasty, but it lacked the dryness and Belgian yeast character we expect from Saisons.
North Coast Brewing Co. Le Merle California, 7.9% ABV
The aroma is all tropical fruit with a bit of must. Pineapple and mango turn a tad sweet midpalate before finishing tangy. It ends up hanging a bit heavy on the tongue. It could be more carbonated.
Sly Fox Brewing Co. Saison Vos Pennsylvania, 6.9% ABV
This beer was strikingly clear for a saison. It had a sweetish floral aroma that mixed with a slight graininess. A pleasant beer with a clean finish; however, it wasn't as complex as some of the other examples we tried.
We tried 17 different American Saisons, but that's just scratching the surface in this increasingly popular category. What's your favorite?
Disclosure: All beers except the Southampton, Boulevard, Stillwater, Pretty Things, Ithaca, North Coast, and Sly Fox were provided as samples for review.
About the Author: Jonathan Moxey is a Harlem-based homebrewer. He hosts private beer tastings for Tapped Craft Beer Events.