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Friday, March 26, 2010

Spring Saison (A Few Words on Farmhouse Ales)

Goose Island's Matilda has got me thinking. American breweries are constantly experimenting with styles, trying to figure out when one's moment is right. It isn't always obvious. Tastes don't evolve linearly, light to dark, sweet to bitter, or small to big. Styles just pop up and find a constituency. Belgian wits, coffee stouts, red ales--all have had their moment. Yet in the US, Belgian styles (wits excepted) have never seemed to make it over the hump--no matter how much beer geeks and breweries love them.

I wonder--could farmhouse ales be the ones to break through?* I had a pint of Laurelwood's saison last night and considered the idea. The problem is, many Belgian beers are challenging. Even leaving aside the sour ales, the others have a reputation for being--well, often when I offer someone a Belgian of which I'm fond, they take an exploratory sip, give a hesitant nod, and agree, "Yes, it's a Belgian." I know then that I'll be (happily) drinking the rest of the bottle by myself.

(I've seen the same look on the faces of visitors who've just taken a pull on one of our radioactively hoppy local beers.)

Farmhouse ales, though, are really approachable. Take Laurelwood's saison. Brewed with wheat and oats, it is a gentle 5.2% alcohol and sports a mere 12 IBUs. Yet what depth! I don't know which yeast Chad used or how he made the beer (typically saisons need warmth and age), but he produced a beer with a lush yeast character--spicy, dry, and warm. You'd think that 12 IBUs would leave a beer treacly, and although the beer is on the sweet side, it seems to emerge from the esters--as you swallow the beer, it dries up on your tongue, leaving a quenching, clean finish. Saison yeasts tend to be very efficient. They gobble most available sugars, but produce sweet-tasting compounds in the process--the best of both worlds. It could be that I'm too far out in the weeds of weird styles to know what Joe Craftbeer likes, but I can't imagine anyone finding Laurelwood's saison challenging.

Beyond that, the class of beers is almost infinitely variable. Bières de garde can be sweet, saisons can be very hoppy, either style can be of mild strength or quite robust. The available yeast strains are quite versatile (Dupont's finicky version does pose challenges, however)--as Upright's range demonstrates.

Part of the issue is cultural: Belgian beers seem alien to Americans. Yet don't farmhouse ales fit neatly into the Northwest's farmer's-market fed food culture? As is our preference, farmhouse ales focus on the natural, local, and traditional. I don't expect to see actual fams start brewing, but getting local ingredients, organic ones, and adding local spices and flavors--that's already happening in most breweries. Why not the style that really celebrates local and handmade? Finally, farmhouse ales are among the best styles for pairing with food--and don't beg for traditional pub fare like stouts and pale ales.

In a few weeks, the Oregon Brewers Guild will sponsor the annual Cheers to Belgian Beers festival, wherein Oregon breweries make their own styles of beer from a single yeast strain. The past couple years have been rough--the yeasts were neither approachable nor versatile. But this year, the yeast is a saison strain. Perhaps at least one or two knock-your-socks-off stellar beers makes an appearance. If so, it will be a great chance to test my theory about their potentially broad appeal.

One can hope!
*I like the phrase "farmhouse" better than the more specific "saison" or "bière de garde." Since the styles have few parameters, using these names doesn't much help in describing a beer. And French words are just generally a bad way to try to sell things in America. "Farmhouse," though--there's a word we can all rally around.


  1. I think they are certainly approachable -- probably just as much so as witbiers.

    I only recently discovered saisons myself, and have only had two (albeit a very good two) examples of the style: Ommegang Hennepin and Bruery's Saison de Lente. Though I have little experience with the style, both beers struck me because they managed to strike a balance between complexity and "drinkability" (sorry for the air quotes, but I hate using that word).

    They are really enjoyable to drink on a hot summer's day, but they are (typically) far more complex than light lagers and other easy-drinking beers.

    I hope to drink many more saisons this year.

  2. HUB's saison is excellent, too. A beer that has depth, yet is easy to drink. I'm a HUGE fan of Belgians; I wish more local brewers would give them a try.

  3. Ditto Daniel
    . . . recently [exploring] saison
    . . . enjoyable to drink on a hot summer's day . . . far more complex than . . . other easy-drinking beers.
    I hope there is a market for Saisons. I find them most enjoyable.
    I hope to find more locally brewed.
    I will do my part by purchasing locally brewed and domestic Saison.

  4. Jeremy in SE PDX10:59 PM, March 26, 2010

    I'm probably exactly the drinker you're thinking of here... (Joe Craftbeer?)

    I like the radioactively hoppy PNW beers, and don't generally take much to Belgians. I just don't think "sour" and "beer" belong in the same sentence. Sorry.

    BUT, I was recommended a French beer de garde (Castellain) to go with Thanksgiving dinner, and I thought it was fantastic, and have begun drinking them in earnest.

    I will definitely be expanding in this direction, and will try Laurelwood's.


  5. Why is it that when someone mentions Belgian beer, they seem to usually mention sour beers. From my experience sour beers are really just a small fraction of Belgian beers. Am I wrong? Why not talk about the blonde ales and strong ales and dubbels and trippels (and quadruples)? Or even the IPAs? Sour beer is such a small niche product it is barely even worth mentioning when talking about Belgian beers.

  6. Went down today and tried Laurelwood's Saison. Better than the last time it was out. Great beer. So drinkable.

  7. Can anyone refresh my memory on when these were traditionally brewed, and when they were traditionally tapped (i.e. in the olden days in Belgium)?

    I think of them as a summer brew. Is that accurate?

  8. Thank you for the article. I think you bring up some very important points about Farmhouse Ales and in a very succinct way. The sweet and sour issue is really dead-on. Saison Dupont is on draft at a bar near where I live and I have to say its like nectar from the gods because of the right balance you discuss. The right combination of flavor (sweet) and crispness (not necessarily sour but bite) is there. I've tried several Farmhouse Ales, both domestic and Belgian and its the complex balance that determines quality imho. Good article. thanks