Saison is a refreshing beer style for warmer weather, with origins in the farmhouses of Belgium, where it was brewed during the winter and stored until summer as part of the provisions for farmworkers.
The saison yeast strain is uniquely flavorful, providing a complex blend of spicy clove phenols, fruity pear and citrus esters and an earthy tartness. Conventional recipes include a very simple malt bill of pilsner malt with perhaps a small amount of wheat and/or character malts like Munich, along with Noble hops or other traditional European hops, leaving the yeast to create the majority of the unique flavors and aromas.
Contemporary brewers have added citrus rind, herbs and spices, and other ingredients to intensify the aromatic qualities. The addition of rye has become another popular way to create a spicy character while providing additional body. California brewers often push the envelope of traditional beer styles, as several of the following examples demonstrate.
Puck Petite Saison from Fort Bragg’s North Coast Brewing Co. poured a pale, hazy-golden color with a big, white frothy head. The aroma featured lemony hops and a tart yeastiness, and the flavor was light pilsner malt intermingled with the tart yeast character and grassy, earthy hops. With a light, fluffy body, high carbonation and a crisp, acidic finish, Puck was very refreshing.
In terms of ingredients, it’s probably the most traditional of this month’s saisons, but with its lower-than-average 4 percent Alcohol By Volume (ABV) – hence the “petite” saison – you can have a couple.
Anchor Brewing Co., based in San Francisco, began producing a 7.2 percent ABV spring seasonal saison with a “California twist” in 2014. The additions of lemon zest and lemongrass, along with tropical fruit character from Nelson Sauvin hops, dominated the aroma, with very little saison yeast character perceptible. The flavor was sweeter than traditional saisons, which tend to be very dry and crisp, and the ginger flavor was not particularly subtle.
The use of two-row malt in place of pilsner, as well as the addition of red wheat, lent a darker golden-orange color. While the beer was unique and flavorful, it was hardly recognizable as a saison.
Clean and crisp
Almanac Beer Co. is based in San Francisco, but at the present their beers are brewed and bottled at San Jose’s Hermitage Brewing Co. Saison Dolores, which, according to the brewery, was inspired by the Mission District, poured a clear golden color with a large, rocky white head. Tartness from the Belgian yeast and citrus fruitiness from dry hopping melded into a very pleasant lemon and ripe stone-fruit aroma.
On the palate, Saison Dolores was extremely dry with noticeable alcohol at 6.8 percent ABV, a firm hop bitterness, peppery rye notes dominating the flavor, and a clean, crisp finish.
Placentia’s The Bruery makes a number of excellent Belgian-style ales, so it’s no surprise that they produce a saison. Saison Rue is 8.5 percent ABV and bottle conditioned, so it will stand up to aging. The bottle I tasted for this column was just over a year old.
The beer was a hazy, deep gold in color with a dense, persistent white head. The aroma proved relatively subtle but carried distinctive ripe pear esters from the saison yeast.
The flavor, on the other hand, was quite complex, with rich, bready, malt character, subtle citrusy hops and just the faintest hint of earthy barnyard funk from the wild Brettanomyces yeast. Simultaneously full-bodied and quite dry, with a long spicy finish from the use of rye malt, Saison Rue was a fantastic example of the style.
Derek Wolfgram is chief operating officer for the Silicon Valley Sudzers Homebrew Club, which welcomes new and experienced beer enthusiasts. For more information, visit sudzers.org.