Said Theseus to Philostrate: “Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments. / Awake the pert and nimble spirits of mirth.”
And said a more contemporary Jane to Dick: “Get thee hither and fire up that damn lawnmower, for it has been more than a fortnight since you’ve put your sickle to a blade of grass!”
Back by popular demand, and just in time for the dog days of summer, Your Saturday Six-Pack. Let us raise a few glasses of suitable ale in honour of those days that occasion dreamy hallucinations. Bring on something crisp, dry, effervescent, fruity, and spicy!
Saison it is.
Depending on whom you read or talk to, the Walloons in the French-speaking part of Belgium brewed a low-alcohol seasonal beer that was meant to quench the thirst of farmhands during the summer. Others claim that Saison beers were, like the Märzens of Bavaria, brewed to a higher gravity in late spring to outlast the summer months. As with so much pertaining to beer and history, myth and fact go hand-in-hand, and I have no intention of cutting through the thicket of fact and fiction for the time being. Suffice it to say, we have enough extant interpretations –– the quaffable Saison de table, the more robust Saison de provision –– to suggest that this is anything but a settled style. Add to this the terminological slippage between “Farmhouse ale” and “Saison,” and you have a perfect midsummer night’s storm that’ll keep the beer geeks debating into the wee hours.
In lieu of a BJCP-like description of the style, I propose a few drinks. Many of these beers are widely available in sizeable North American beverage markets, some less so. One is an absolute classic. All come highly recommended by yours truly. Diversity is the only thread that unifies my selection.
Cellar Door (Stillwater Artisan Ales, Maryland)
Stillwater bills its Cellar Door as an American farmhouse ale “gently finished …. with a touch of white sage.” German wheat and pale malts overlaid with Sterling and Citra hops lie at this complex beer’s foundation. The dominant aromas that make their way past the towering foam cap crowning this hazy golden blond beer are nothing if not herbal, with a dash of lavender and citrus (tangerine) taming the sage. Add some honey, clove-spiked peach, and white pepper to this basil-sage keynote, and you might think you’ve landed in the fields of Provence. Lime zest-infused honey links up with freshly mown hay and an echo of tropical fruit before being cut through with an effervescent carbonation and a refreshing minerality. A crisp, sage-brush dryness near the finish raises the curtain on a lingering light brown sugar and dried apricot aftertaste. Note: This aromatic beer is excellent fresh, but a bit of age lends the beer even more depth and a subtle roundness. One Tankard.
Tropic King Imperial Saison (Funkwerks, Colorado)
Fort Collins’ Funkwerks brews more than one Saison/farmhouse ale, but the Tropic King laden with Rakau hops from New Zealand is one of those passion fruit-mango-peach explosions that makes you sit up and take notice. With its orange and amber hues, the beer is sunshine in a glass, and the candy floss-like foam cap lingers long enough to bring you right back to the amusement parks of your childhood. A whiff of old hay and henna mingle with an intense tropical fruit character that gives the Brettanomyces an elegant touch. Passion fruit and mango dance with honeyed malt on the spritzy palate, but pepper and zesty ginger notes keep the beer refreshingly dry. In a word, Brett-and-spice bitterness and dryness balanced by a malt richness and intense tropical fruit. At 8% ABV, you’ll want to resist the urge to quaff this one on a hot day. Two Tankards.
Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale (Boulevard Brewing Company, Missouri)
Like the Tropic King, this eminently drinkable beer from Boulevard’s Smokestack Series is no wall flower in the ABV department. It’s also the base beer for their delicious Saison-Brett, which I wrote about in May. As the story at Boulevard goes, “most breweries have a piece of equipment that’s just a bit persnickety.” Tank Seven was the proverbial black sheep at Boulevard. Turns out, though, that the vessel did wonders for their Belgian-style farmhouse ale, and this delicious beer was born. Hazy honey-gold with a vigorous collar of foam, this richly textured marriage of Belgian yeast and North American hops brings apricot-accented tropical fruit to the fore, followed by waves of orange-grapefruit citrus, an earthy spice note that mingles white pepper and coriander together with a hint of pine. Big and bold, the unobtrusive malt backdrop of honeyed light brown sugar lets the mango-pineapple and muscat grape flavours shine through. Tank 7 manages to be luscious yet light-bodied and dry at the same time, with the malted wheat giving the beer a zesty lift near the finish. Two Tankards.
Saison Cazeau aux Fleurs de Sureau (Brasserie de Cazeau, Belgium)
And now for something a little different. For those of you who don’t feel like pulling out your French dictionaries or googling “sureau,” it means elderflower. And the elderflower in this supple ale the colour of hay lends it an air of fragrant meadows and floral honey. But it’s not just the floral notes that make this beer unique. Along with the clove-pepper-spice calling card of Belgian yeast, you might just detect a jalapeno note reminiscent of Cabernet Franc grapes. An ample bed of wheat and bready malt keeps this dry, crisp, peppery, and subtly floral beer afloat. Clocking in at a mere 5% ABV, Saison Cazeau is yet more proof that you don’t need a tonne of alcohol to get stellar flavours in your beer. One Tankard.
Saison du Buff (Dogfish Head, Delaware)
I picked this beer up with no small amount of trepidation. An ale brewed with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme has to be a train-wreck, right? But if anyone can awake the pert and nimble spirits of mirth, I thought, it’s the good folks at Dogfish Head. The beer starts playfully enough, with sunny golden saffron hues sounding the prelude for sage, rosemary, honeyed papaya, green apple skin, a slate-like minerality, and the slightest trace of parsley, probably because I was looking for it. (Alas, the power of suggestion!) I take a sip and smell again. Honeydew melon, a bit like mead, with thyme becoming slightly more prominent alongside the sage. The herbs reprise themselves subtly on the palate, balanced by a sweet graham cracker-like maltiness. Highly effervescent and enhanced by a mild green apple tartness and a coriander-clove spiciness, the beer is well-balanced and not at all gimmicky. Herbs play well with the mild Belgian yeast aromatics, the one complementing and gently amplifying the other. It all harmonizes well to provide a complex herbal presence that gestures slightly in the direction of savoury, yet with a softly sweet honeyed presence. One Tankard for this whimsical beer.
Saison Dupont (Brasserie Dupont, Belgium)
Though the venerable Saison Dupont hails from Europe’s more northerly reaches, its radiant golden yellow with orange hues hints at the French Riviera. And then there’s the towering, pillowy foam, like a snow-capped Alpine peak on a hot day. The best of both worlds. The aromatics open with a salvo of herbal-floral hops, followed immediately by white pepper, clove-coriander, grains of paradise, and a slate-like minerality. Peach-pear yeast notes and hints of ripe banana in the depths add fruit, with whispers of lightly kilned Munich (lightly toasted bread laced with a hint of melanoidin) making a cameo appearance. Saison Dupont is deft on the palate, combining tangerine-peach and an orange blossom floral essence with an off-dry bready-wheat-oat flake malt character before finishing crisply. The musky hops lend mid-palate spice before dried apricot and almonds take over in a finish where Crème de Noyaux meets Bon Maman apricot jam. Bright. Playfully fruity. And appetizingly bitter. The standard bearer of the style. Two Tankards.
I hope you enjoy the range of flavours and aromas in these summery beers as much as I do. For a Three-Tankard **bonus addition** to your six-pack, check out my write-up on Black Raven and make your six-pack a lucky seven.
A brief note on serving: Use a glass that allows for plenty of head space, for many of these beers have epic foam caps. Brasserie Dupont suggests serving their Saison at 12C/54F (cellar temperature), but I’ve found that slightly cooler temperatures flatter many of the Saisons I’ve written about here.
Related Tempest Articles
The Sunday Sour Sessions: Jolly Pumpkin’s Baudelaire Saison
Marking Time with a Brett-Saison from Boulevard
This Bird’s For You: Black Raven’s Pour Les Oiseaux Saison
Sources and Further Reading
Garrett Oliver, The Brewmaster’s Table (New York: HarperCollins, 2003).
Michael Jackson, The New World Guide to Beer (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1988).
Stillwater Artisanal Ales’ “My Works” blog.
Boulevard Brewing Company, “Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale.”
Brasserie Dupont, “Saison Dupont.”
Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Mendelssohn’s incidental music of the same name isn’t half bad either. Give it a listen while you’re drinking these fine beverages.)
Labels and images from the respective breweries’ sites.
©2015 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All Rights Reserved.