COLUMN WRITTEN BY MATT BRASCH
For Digital First Media
If you live in the greater Philadelphia area, there is a good chance that you’ve seen a “Belgian style saison” offered at a local pub. What is a saison? It is generally agreed that the saison style was first created by Belgian farm-brewers to sustain the workers in the fields. A lower-alcohol beer, saisons were brewed in the winter and would age, or “bottle condition,” for months before being consumed in the spring and summer. It has been said that the field hands would take their bottles of saison with them out to the field in the morning and bury them in the dirt to keep them away from the heat of the sun until they opened the bottles later in the day.
Descriptions of the style vary; in fact, the saison has been embraced by many brewers for its amorphous definition and the resulting freedom to experiment with flavors, colors and tastes — and still be considered a saison. Although the newly released Beer Judge Certification Program (“BJCP”) Beer Style Guidelines — 2015 edition defines a saison as “Most commonly, a pale, refreshing, highly-attenuated, moderately-bitter, moderate-strength Belgian ale with a very dry finish. Typically highly carbonated, and using non-barley cereal grains and optional spices for complexity, as complements the expressive yeast character that is fruity, spicy, and not overly phenolic,” this is still a relatively broad definition. In addition to what goes into a saison, the amount of time that it rests before being consumed is also important — most Belgian brewers still bottle condition their saisons for weeks or months to allow the beer to age and enhance the flavor of the beer.
While saisons are easily found in the U.S. these days, it wasn’t always so. The rise in popularity of the saison style began in the 1980s and is attributed to the efforts of acclaimed beer writer Michael Jackson who brought attention to “Saison Dupont” by Belgian brewer Brasserie DuPont. “Saison DuPont” has become the standard for the traditional style. The saison style has been fostered in the Philadelphia area by the likes of Yards Brewing Co., who first released their “Yards Saison” in 1996, Victory Brewing Company’s “Helios” (formerly “V-Saison”), Sly Fox Brewing Company’s “Saison Vos,” and Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant usually has at least one saison on tap.
Montgomery County is lucky to have its own excellent saison brewers in Forest & Main Brewing Company of Ambler and Tired Hands Brewing Company of Ardmore. Both of these breweries are relatively new — Tired Hands was founded in 2011 and Forest & Main opened in 2012 — but in their short histories, they have made significant names for themselves in the craft brewing community for their saisons. In fact, they both were selected for best saisons in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s 2014 “Brewvitational” — Tired Hands’s “HandFarm Four-Grain Saison aged in Chardonnay barrels” was ranked first and Forest & Main’s “Solaire” was ranked third.
Forest & Main’s brewers, Gerard Olson and Dan Endicott, have dedicated themselves to testing the bounds of the saison definition. While their “Solaire” and “Lunaire” are closer to traditional saisons, a visit to Forest & Main could reveal anything from a sour saison reminiscent in color to a stout, to a bright yellow, hoppier saison infused with cucumber. This wide palette is what attracted Olson to the style. “It’s the mystique; the fact that in all the best ones there is something that you just can’t put your finger on, something that goes beyond just barley, hops and yeast.” Olson said in an email.
A new saison to the area is the “Lucky Well Saison,” brewed by Conshohocken Brewing Company and served exclusively at The Lucky Well in Ambler. According to John Remington, co-founder of Conshohocken Brewing, the reason for brewing a saison was simple: “One of our brewers got married this time last year and wanted a saison on the draft list at his reception,” Remington said in an email. “He had a great recipe for a saison and the timing was right for us to brew it. We enjoyed it last year so much that we brewed 60 bbls of it this year…” Conshohocken Brewing opened in 2014 and was voted “Best New Brewery” at the Philly Beer Scene Awards this May. As far as being voted “Best New Brewery,” Remington said it feels “Amazing — we were nominated alongside some great new breweries, so to win was a big honor for us. We are fortunate to have so many people digging our beer only one year into things.”
Unlike the original Belgian farm hands, we are fortunate enough to have many varieties of saisons available to us. Whether it’s from Brasserie DuPont, Yards, Conshohocken, Forest & Main or Tired Hands, if you’ve never had a saison, try one while relaxing on a warm summer day. A few sips of this refreshing style and you are sure to gain an appreciation as to why the saison is a favorite in Belgium as well as here in the U.S. Cheers!
Columnist Matt Brasch is a Souderton Area High School graduate and a beer enthusiast. For more, check his blog at http://thebrewholder.com.