It's hot! I don't want to sound like I'm whining, but really, it's hot. Even here in chilly Minnesota this season has been one for the record books. I think I need a beer; something crisp, light, lively and refreshing to ease the oppressive summer swelter.
Saison is the perfect choice. Its roots as a farmhouse ale, traditionally brewed with whatever ingredients were at hand on the farmstead, make it a notoriously difficult style to pin down. Saisons can be black, amber, or nearly white. Some are strong, some are not. More than a few have the flavor twist of added spices, fruit, or wild yeast. The range is huge, but most modern saisons display a few common characteristics. They are almost universally very dry and super effervescent. Bitterness is fairly high. Pronounced spicy hop flavors complement the peppery spice and stone fruit notes of Belgian and French yeast strains. They are also superbly refreshing.
All of those factors help make saisons especially well-suited to pairing with food. They're robust enough to take on full flavored dishes, but are still light enough for a hot day. The complex blend of yeasty fruit and spice complements a wide range of dishes from spicy Asian and Middle-Eastern to grilled red meat. The high fizz factor and sharp bitterness make them awesome palate cleansers. But one word of caution: don't go too light with the food or this beer will blow it away.
Farmhouse Ales for Farmhouse Foods
Rustic beers call for rustic foods, and French provincial cuisine is a great choice. A simple roasted chicken with garlic and herbs calls out for an easy-going table saison like Dupot Avril. At just 3.5% alcohol it really is a lightweight. It won't get in the way of the dish. Grassy and floral flavors latch into the herbs in the dish.
Bouillabaisse and saison are another highly recommended matchup. From shellfish to fennel to saffron, the flavors of this classic French stew find harmonic convergence with Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, the classic Belgian saison. Peppery yeast and spicy/floral hops work with the dish's spicier side, while overtones of citrus and stone fruit pick up the orange zest that seasons the soup.
Wine is notoriously tough to pair with salads because of the vinegar involved, but saison has no such trouble. Try Goose Island Sofie with a salad of mesclun greens and arugula. The beer is delicate enough that it won't overpower the salad, and the yeast-derived spice nicely complements the peppery greens.
Saisons are delicious with creamy, bloomy-rind cheeses. Try Ommegang Hennepin with Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog. This gentle but still full-flavored beer harmonizes well with this delicate ripened goat cheese. Spicy, fruity, and earthy flavors in the beer latch on to the herbaceous, earthy tang of the cheese. And saison is fizzy enough to tackle the gooey cheese and clean your palate as you go.
Try a Brettanomyces-inflected saison like Fantôme Saison, Jolly Pumpkin Bam Bière, or Boulevard Saison Brett with funkier cheeses like Meadow Creek Grayson, an aromatic washed-rind cheese from Virginia that is reminiscent of Italian Taleggio. It's funk meets funk.
A Little Bit of Spice
The spicy side of saison makes it a great partner for aromatic Asian or Middle-Eastern dishes. The peppery and fruity yeast character along with spices that are sometimes added to these beers provides both complement and contrast to these cuisines.
Try Saint Somewhere Saison Aethene with pad thai. Lemongrass, ginger, and clove in the beer provide an extra layer of complementary flavors to the pairing. Don't be afraid to add some chili paste to the dish. The flavors meld beautifully with the yeast and the bubbles will wash away any lingering heat and oil.
Middle Eastern foods are built on complex combinations of flavors like honey, mint, cumin and coriander. The spicy/sweet/fruity profiles of Boulevard's Tank 7 Saison or Unibroue Blonde de Chambly complement and brighten shawarma with hummus and tahini. Spicy cumin and pepper notes in the beers tie in perfectly with similar flavors in the dish. Flavors of honey and fruit like apricots and pears give a sweet contrast.
Give Me the Meat
Though light and refreshing, saison is beefy enough to stand up to grilled red meat. Try The Bruery's Saison Rue with a cracked-pepper encrusted steak. It's all about the pepper in this pairing. The peppery notes of the saison yeast get an extra boost from rye malt in the grist.
You can't go wrong pairing saison with charcuterie. Saison Silly and Blaugies Saison d'Epeautre both have a balance of spice and fruit with underlying honey sweetness that will complement a wide range of smoked, cured, and confited meats. The fizzy finish will scrub your palate clean.
With a beer so food-friendly, the pairing possibilities are wide open. Tell us: what is your favorite food to eat with a nice saison?
About the Author: Certified Cicerone Michael Agnew is the lead educator and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts beer tastings for private parties and corporate events. His beer musings can be read in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, his own Perfect Pint Blog, The Hop Press at Ratebeer.com, and the City Pages Hot Dish Blog. He is the author of an upcoming travel guide to breweries in the upper Midwest, due out this fall from the University of Illinois Press. Follow him on Twitter at @aperfectpint