I spend a lot of time writing about the high gravity strong ales of Belgium and there is certainly plenty to write about within these stylistic parameters, but I would be remiss to exclude another one of my favorite traditional Belgian ale styles – a style that is typically not celebrated like its “bigger” Belgian brethren. While the high profile, high alcohol ales of the Trappist and Abbey breweries of Belgium get the lion’s share of the attention and press, the Belgian Saison has always been one of the hardest working beers around. No accolades required.
Considered a “farmhouse” ale, the Saison was traditionally brewed by farmers in the Belgian-French speaking region of Wallonia. The beer was brewed in the fall or winter for summer consumption, during the harvest. These days, it’s brewed year-round. Because the ale is matured via bottle conditioning, and heavily hopped (originally to ensure it’s survival during maturation and storage), this Belgian ale possesses a unique flavor profile among Belgian beers. The Saison is a very complex beer, despite it’s relatively low alcohol content (generally between 5.0 and 8.0% ABV) and humble heritage, and is typically dominated by spicy and fruity notes in both the nose and the palate. The generous use of hops in the beer give it a decidedly dry character that separates the Saison from the vast majority of Belgian ale styles, which are often malt-heavy and relatively sweet. Additionally, Saisons are known for having a refreshing yet subtle tartness that is a true hallmark of the style.
If you’re interested in sampling this unique ale, you can do no better than the terrific exemplar of the style produced by Brasserie Dupont. Here is my review from a 2005 bottle of their Saison Dupont:
Decanted into an oversized wine glass from the 2005 750 ml green bottle, this ale pours a light golden straw color with a stark white head that is nothing short of monumental. The Belgian lacing on the inner rim of the glassware is voracious. The nose is an excellent blend of distinctive Belgian yeast, citrus, earthy spices and hops. The palate is intriguingly complex; a medley of spiciness (black pepper, coriander, and cloves) hops, and slightly sweet, sugary notes intermingled with a pleasant, refreshing tart character due to the yeast strain and resulting citrus-like elements of lemon zest and orange peel. The mouth feel is light and lively with rather high carbonation and a slight “burn” that is refreshing and clean. This Saison has complexity and class in every way. The beer finishes dry and a little hoppy, with some residual tartness on the tongue. A very drinkable, and sessionable, beer.
I love Saisons, and this one is arguably the gold standard for the style. Try this one on your lager drinking friends, especially those who like a beer like Heineken or Corona, and see if they don’t approve. The “skunkiness” of those beers might just equip them to enjoy the slightly tart and funky aspects of a finely-crafted Belgian saison.
Lest you think that a Belgian import is the only way to sample a good Saison, though it may be the best place to start, you can also find a fine example of the style and it’s evolution in the modern world, from one of my favorite American-based brewers, Brewery Ommegang. Ommegang’s Saison is called Hennepin and is at the top of my list of domestic Belgian-style beers, regardless of style. If Ommegang beers are distributed in your area, you owe it to yourself to find this beer. Why not pick up a couple of bottles of each of these fine beers and see how they compare and contrast? Sample the finest of the Belgian and American interpretations of the style, and decide your favorite. I believe you’ll find each to be unique and rewarding in their own ways. Like the origins of the style itself, the Saison is truly a beer to “work on.” Spend some time delving into the complexities therein and you’ll not regret it – and at a sessionable ABV, you won’t feel it the next day either!
A votre sante!