Prepare to Meet Your New Favorite Beer
© Debbie Lewis
If I were stranded on a desert island with a single style of beer, I’d want it to be the saison. (If stuck on an iceberg, I might request a stout or porter—but this is a desert island, remember.) Sure, Germany has its maibocks and hefeweizens for the spring and summer—but I look to the Belgians for my warm weather go-to: a highly carbonated, slightly spicy, slightly fruity, earthy, yeasty, bittersweet brew that’s easily distinguishable, but not as easy to describe.
Originating in the French-speaking region of Belgium, saison-style farmhouse ales were traditionally brewed during the cooler, quieter months. With average ABV of 3.5 percent, seasonal farmers (les saisonniers) could drink them steadily throughout the summer without getting wasted enough to plow into a tree. These days, though most international saisons are still unfiltered and bottle conditioned, they are brewed at significantly higher ABV, between 4 percent and 7 percent (not so good for farmers; great for you and me).
Not long ago the saison was nearly an endangered species, but the style has been making a strong comeback since the 1980s. For its revival, we can at least partially thank the Champagne of saisons, Saison Dupont, which has undeniably inspired the beer’s modern form.
Can contending Belgian-style farmhouse ales from the US, Italy or New Zealand (!), even compete with the original? Grab your bottles and find out with me in this installment of the Beer Olympics.
Brasserie Dupont Saison Dupont; Belgium: With a wonderfully cloudy, pale orange hue and a decent amount of head, the classic Saison Dupont sets the bar for the style. It looks so balanced that I’m tempted to ask it to fix my checkbook.
Goose Island Sofie; United States: Sofie appears to be the palest of the bunch, characterized by a daisy-yellow hue with thin, delicate bubbles. Perhaps the human namesake of this beer was a ballerina.
Birra Del Borgo Duchessa; Italy: Our second “female” entrant, Duchessa pours a beautiful burnt amber. Perhaps a little deeper, crisper and clearer than your typical saison, but the beer looks so inviting, I’m considering bathing in it later.
8 Wired Saison Sauvin; New Zealand: A close runner-up to the Duchessa in depth of hue, the Saison Sauvin features a nice, yeasty head. This beer may be made by Kiwis, but it looks just like a Belgian!
POINT: Birra Del Borgo Duchessa
Saison Dupont: What does the definitive funky farmhouse yeast smell like? Kind of like an orange-banana-clove smoothie that was left out at a weeklong George Clinton and Parliament show. (The intoxicating result is way better than it sounds.)
Sofie: Sofie’s funk is a bit tamer, though punctuated by notes of pepper, sour vinegar and barnyard wood. My wife says it smells like cat piss—but if that were the case, I’d be burying my nose in kitty’s litter box every morning.
Duchessa: Sweeter and certainly milder than most, Duchessa has the nuttiest, maltiest nose of any saison I know of. But the thick fragrance fades away quickly…much like my interest in this beer.
Saison Sauvin: New Zealand’s competitor boasts the freshest, cleanest nose of all, reminiscent of white wine: zesty, with lots of fruit and a touch of pepper. If a traditional saison is defined by funky mustiness, this would miss the mark—but its scent is too refreshing not to love.