It's not really appropriate to call saison an "endangered species," among Belgian styles as Michael Jackson did in Great Beers of Belgium ten years ago. (Actually, his description is probably largely responsible for engendering the international interest that revived it.) There was a rennaissance in Belgium of traditional styles, and a minor one here with mostly less than traditional styles. The exception is Hennepin from New York's Ommegang, the only American I've tasted that comes close to the Belgian originals.
But among all saisons, the classic example is Dupont. Others exist--from Silly, Pipaix, Lefebvre, and Fantome, but these are harder to get. Saison Dupont is available at many supermarkets (though, as always, you're better off to get it at a retailer that takes care of its beer).
As a style, saisons are a collection of typically artisinal ales, typical of an earlier era when it was difficult to brew in the summer (the yeast gets funky at high temperatures). Thus it was brewed in the spring ("la saison de mars"--the season of march) to be laid down for a few months until summer. They ranged from very low alcohol beers (according to Jackson, "children's strength") to robust versions of 8% or more. Their palate is crisp, mildly tart, and hoppy. For people who enjoy IPAs (ie, almost all denizens of Beervana), I think saisons would be a wonderful beer to try.
It pours out a hazy, sunny gold--a chill haze that dissipates as the beer warms--with a very vigorous bead. It is so bright in the glass that it makes me want to go into a purple metaphor about capturing sunlight--but I'll desist. It features one of the richest, fluffiest, almost architectural heads of any beer--a head that stays through the final sip.
When I poke my nose into a beer, I conduct a forensic sweep, beginning with the yeast. I was initially struck by a cellary quality of Saison Dupont; in this case, it's not musty, but more of a mineral quality. As a minor note, there are a bit of hops, but Dupont has an alchemical depth in its aroma that comes from the yeast.
Crispness and a dryness are the hallmarks of the saison style, making it closer to a chardonnay than bock. It has a tartness characteristic of Belgian beers, but in a minor key; it's balanced by a mineral dry (partly, perhaps, from hard water) accentuated by Kent Goldings hops--lots of 'em. (The Belgians make classic regional beers, but they are far from parochial: borrowing a classic English hop to produce this classic Belgian ale is in keeping with Belgian virtuosity, and, I like to think, a tip of the hat to the kinds of beers like IPAs that may have helped inspire Dupont.) This is one of the hoppiest Beligian styles, and to my mind why it is tailor made for the Northwest palate. Finally, sometime after the initial, alcoholic first note and subsequent notes of tart and dry, but before the long, hoppy finish, the malts have their moment, offering a surprising amount of sweet fruit.
I will confess that if I were confined to a desert island with only five beers to drink the rest of my life, Saison Dupont would be one. So for that reason, you'll have to forgive me for the effusive review.
Malts: Pale malts.
Hops: Kent Goldings (maybe also Styrian and Hallertau)
Alcohol by volume: 6.5%
Original Gravity: 1.054.
Bitterness Units: Unavailable.
Available: Grocery stores with decent beer selections, Belmont Station.