It is the season of "saisons." Summer is the perfect time for these refreshing ales which belong to a family of beers known as farmhouse ales. Saison has become a general term which encompasses a wide range of farmhouse ales. Bas-ically, a saison is what the brewer says it is. Historical interpretations can be varied, as very few recipes have survived through the centuries. There are now black saisons, grisettes and ones with fruit added. They can be from sour to sweet to bitter, or light to dark to amber.
Before refrigeration existed, the brewing season was only in the colder months, so these ales were brewed in the winter on the family farms and stored throughout the summer, thus the term "bier de garde" or beer to keep. (Biere de garde has become a style of its own and is a cousin of the saison style.)
Working in the fields all day, the farm workers needed to hydrate themselves and the water of the times was not always fit to drink. So they drank these relatively strong beers in large quantities every day. Therefore, the farms had to produce large amounts of these beers, which also kept the people in the village employed in the winter. Many believe that it was brewed in two strengths, a strong one and a weaker version. The former was for the landowners and family members, and the latter for his hired help or sharecroppers. No matter though, as they were thoroughly en-joyed by both. Sometimes, they allowed a third running to make a table beer of less than 1 percent for everyday use.
Of course, not much was known about sanitation in those days, and the beers had to be preserved as best they knew how through higher rates of hopping and allowing lactic acid to form adding a sourness to the beer. Spices of all kinds were also added for flavoring: Star anise, sage, green peppercorns, coriander, cumin, orange peel and ginger were the most common.
The boil for these beers is much longer than the usual hour to hour and a half. Originally, they were boiled for six to eight hours, producing a very concentrated wort, increasing its alcohol content and deepening its color. It also is usually fermented at a much higher temperature, lending the brew lots of fruity esters.
In the early 20th century, as the small farms began to disappear, saison began to be produced commercially. The competition from foreign beers also attributed to the decline in production, and only the best of the best survived.
Brasserie Dupont's Saison Vielle Provision is considered the benchmark by which all others are measured. Higher in alcohol and a bit hoppier than the older styles, it is still a very refreshing beer that is also bottle-conditioned one to two months. Dupont brews Moinette, an 8.5-percent ABV brew with a bready and grassy palate, as well as my favorite, Avec Les Bons Voeux (With Best Wishes), a 9.5-percent ABV holiday beer with lots of spicy and fruity notes.
Locally, Yards Brewing of Philadelphia makes an exceptional Saison, and Sly Fox has a Grisette in cans. Brewery Ommegang brews Hennepin year round, and it is nicely spiced and highly rated. Sofie from Goose Island is available year round also and is aged in wine barrels with citrus peel. Brewer Phil Mark-owski of Southampton Brewing wrote a book called Farmhouse Ales and brews several saisons which are quite good. I even found a saison from Cigar City in Florida with cucumbers in it. One of the more unusual ones!
As you can see, saisons are a common style this time of year and can be found everywhere both on tap and in bottles. Pick up a few and taste the variety of flavors. I'm sure you will find one that suits you. Gezondheid!
FYI to all you lovers of pumpkin beers, many are being released early this year and will be produced in larger quantities. Southern Tier Pumking, Weyerbacher Imperial Pumpkin and Smutty-nose Pumpkin are already hitting the shelves and taps, so get out there and stock up for the season as they may disappear quickly.