Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Saison beers remain light and enjoyable while providing sustenance.

Written by  Ben Darcie
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Saison was born in the 1700s in the Belgian countryside and finds its roots as quite a few other regional styles of beer do: necessity. The water available in the region wasn't suitable for consumption, and by the miracle of fermentation, the water was made drinkable. The beer also doubled as compensation for farm workers, to the tune of 5 litres per day.
The beer would be brewed in the fall and winter, when the weather started to turn cooler, and be aged through the winter for release to the workers in the spring and through the summer. It had to contain alcohol, for sanitary drinking purposes, yet couldn't be too heavy, for fear of incapacitating the workers. It was here that Saison (“season”) was born and consumed by the seasonal workers, or, les saisonniers.

Each farm would produce a different Saison, depending on the resources available to them, but we do know they utilized hops in them, probably moreso for the role of preservation than bitterness. These beers tended to be lighter in alcohol, around 3-4%, and usually contained a significant addition of local spices. The beers remained light and enjoyable while providing sustenance to the workers.

One of the most common characteristics of Saison, along with most Belgian styles, is the classic Belgian 'funk' – generally described as a musty cellar-feel or haylike flavor paired with a moderate tart sourness. When Saison was first being brewed, these classic yeast ester flavors weren't as prominent, but developed over time as farm owner/brewers re-pitched batch after batch on the same, growing, living yeast strain sitting in the bottom of their vats.

As Belgium aged and grew, Saison took more of the role of a table beer. Light, sessionable and endlessly drinkable, this style has remained one of the most popular. As the style began making it's way across Europe and into the world, more societies became enamored with this simple, elegant and endlessly pleasing style.

Modern Saisons tend to be slightly higher in alcohol, anywhere from 4-8%abv. The flavors tend to be a bit more pronounced on the malt end than traditional saisons, which tend to relish in simplicity and allow the yeast to sit in the spotlight. That is the key to a wonderful Saison, and I think modern Saisons embrace that idea while balancing it with the classic American Craft mindset of “bigger and more intense”.

When the American craft movement embraced Belgian styles, it did so intensely. Even here in Michigan we see a great love of Belgian beer, with more than two breweries specializing in it, and, quite often, you'll stop in a Michigan brewery and see some kind of Belgian ale on tap.

The two most prominent Michigan Belgian producers are Jolly Pumpkin (Dexter, Traverse City) and Brewery Vivant (Grand Rapids), though Vivant specializes in Belgo-American beer, which is Belgian beer made for the American Palate, if you will.

Here's a few Michigan Saisons to brighten up your Summer:

Arbor Brewing Saison

Bastone Saison Noir

Big Rock Chophouse Saison St. Claire

Brewery Vivant Farmhand (technically a 'farmhouse ale')

Brewery Vivant Zaison Imperial Saison

Grizzly Peak Michigan Saissoniere

Ben Darcie

Ben Darcie

Ben Darcie has been homebrewing since 2006 and is currently the Brewery Representative for Brewery Vivant in Grand Rapids, MI. He also provides public and private Beer Education and is a Beer Writer for BeerAdvocate, I'm a Beer Hound and three other Michigan publications. He is also the founder of Experience Beer WM and the 9wk Grand Rapids Beer Tasting Class (est. 2010).