Like the taste of barnyard funk? Orange zest? Horse blanket? If so, the saison — also called the farmhouse ale — might just be your beer style. Although saisons avoid precise definition, they share a history, as well as several features: originally brewed in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, as a summer treat for farmers who spent hours under the hot sun, saisons often taste spicy, earthy and yeasty, and contain ABV levels that typically run between 4% and 8.5%. Other than a glass of ice water, they’re about as refreshing a drink as you can get on a hot summer day. Here are seven favorites.
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In the 1980s, the Dupont brewery in Tourpes, Belgium introduced American palates to the saison with Saison Dupont. The beer, which is still made today, won Men’s Journal’s “Best Beer in the World” award in 2005. When Matthew Barbee tried Saison Dupont, he grew to appreciate the style and knew that he wanted to produce it for himself. The grandson of a winemaker, Barbee worked as a sommelier’s assistant at Nomi, in Chicago, before moving back to Ohio and opening a brewery. His 7% ABV Rockmill Saison pours a hazy orange, and contains a citrusy lemon note more common to gueuzes than saisons.
Traditionally, Wallonian farmers made their beers outside, so wild yeast was a common — and often encouraged — part of every brew. However, with today’s stainless steel tanks and carefully monitored indoor brews, wild, funky flavors get traded for consistency. That’s why Boulevard, the largest specialty brewer in the Midwest, adds a healthy dose of wild Brettanomyces yeast to each bottle of their 8.5% ABV Saison-Brett. The wild yeast continues to work even after the bottle gets corked, meaning that this beer can be cellared to enhance its flavor.
Beer aficionados know to look for any Firestone Walker beer that comes in a brown box, but even those outside their coveted “Proprietor’s Vintage Series” are still pretty damn delicious. The Double Jack, for instance, made our Best Double IPA list, and their 7.5% ABV Opal is no slouch, either. Made with four different hops and three different malts, Opal finishes like white wine, making it the perfect beer to pair with cheese or fish.
Crooked Stave Vielle
If any brewery in the United States has mastered the tricky art of using Brettanomyces yeast, it’s the Denver-based Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project — a.k.a. Crooked Stave. The brewery, housed in an old ironworks, ran out of beer in just 20 minutes at this year’s Extreme Beer Festival. Their 4.2% ABV Vielle Saison takes a different tact from Firestone Walker’s Opal, trading full fruit flavors and zest for something a little lighter. For those on the fence about saisons, the Vielle makes an excellent introduction.
Logsdon Peche ‘n Brett
Lucky Vermont… they get wide, open green spaces, the Ben & Jerry’s factory and the Alchemist Cannery. Until recently, they were also the only state on the east coast other than New York to receive Logsdon Farmhouse Ales, produced on a bucolic 10-acre estate in Hood River, Oregon. Logsdon’s renowned Peche ’n Brett, an oak-aged version of their already terrific Seizoen Bretta, packs a walloping 10% ABV and over a pound and a half of local peaches per gallon into each bottle. The beer alone might be worth the trip to Hood River, though if that’s not your thing, the city is also known as the “Windsurfing Capital of the World”.
Great Divide Colette
Best known for their Yeti series, a collection of phenomenal stouts, Denver-based Great Divide also produces Colette, a 7.3% ABV saison that took home the silver medal for French & Belgian Saisons at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival. Brewed with four different yeast strains, the fruity saison finishes dry, making it an excellent drink to pair with foie gras or Camembert cheese.
The Bruery Saison Rue
Based in Placentia, California, The Bruery riffs on Belgian beers the same way Dogfish Head experiments with…well, everything. In the past, for instance, The Bruery has used ingredients such as coriander, orange peels, lactobacillus bacteria, Pinot noir grapes, and bourbon barrels to produce their unique products. Their unfiltered, bottle-conditioned 8.5% ABV Saison Rue falls on the earthier end of the saison spectrum, full of spicy, leathery malt notes.
Oxbow Brewing Liquid Swords
We take pride in promoting solid companies as well as up-and-comers: Oxbow Brewing, founded in 2011, is quickly rising to the top. Like The Bruery, the Newcastle, Maine-based Oxbow puts American twists on traditional Belgian-style ales. Their 6% ABV Liquid Swords, a perennial release, blends several of their saisons, all produced with Oxbow well water. Expect more styles and flavors from Oxbow as their recently planted farm comes into bloom.