Traditional Belgian & French Farmhouse Ales
By Randy Clemens
“Have you ever had a Belgian beer before?” cheesemaker Jonathan White asked me. No, I hadn’t. At the ripe young age of 19, having just finished all my courses in culinary school, I was at that interesting intersection we all likely crossed when getting our first taste of the “real world”: thinking you know everything but quickly realizing that you know nothing.
What was meant to be a three-month internship to learn about making bread and cheese at Bobolink Dairy in rural New Jersey would take a wildly unexpected turn when I eventually had my first sip of Fôret, an organic Belgian saison from Brasserie Dupont.
Standing there in the cheese cellar, I watched as some of the maturing wheels were bathed in and brushed with the Fôret, and Jonathan must have seen my under- 21-year-old eyes sparkle in reverence at the sight. Thankfully, he poured me a glass. “Try it and tell me what spices you think are in it,” he said. And as I listed off more and more spices in a feeble attempt to impress him, his smile grew and grew, seemingly curling over upon itself à la Mr. Grinch. “There are no spices,” he then told me. “Those flavors are all derived from the yeast and hops.” Wait… what? My mind—along with my culinary cover—was blown.
Saisons represent a unique style of beer, historically brewed to provide both sustenance and refreshment for saisonniers—seasonal farm workers—that undoubtedly worked up a serious thirst out in the fields during the hot summer months.
Balance has always been at the core of saisons, as you’d want a beverage that was calorically refreshing, but not so rich that it would in turn prove to be counterproductive on the labor side of things. (I don’t know about you, but personally, my potato yields suffer by an average of 15% if I’ve got a strong buzz going.)
Attempts to nail down a finite definition for saisons beyond adjectives like crisp, refreshing and balanced, are futile.
Yes, they’re usually light in color and err on the side of lower alcohol, but perhaps no other style is as open to interpretation as the saison. (Except maybe its semi-related French cousin, the bière de garde, but more on her in a minute.)
Hard-pressed as beer aficionados may be to agree on what does or doesn’t constitute a proper saison, consensus is fairly universal that—to follow the old cliché—if you looked up “saison” in the dictionary, you should find a picture of Saison Dupont staring you in the face. Steeped in history and tradition, Saison Dupont is still made in the same gasfired copper kettles that were installed in 1920, when the farming—that began in 1759— ceased and the operation switched to strictly brewing. Decidedly dry, with aromas of citrus, white pepper and clove, you’ll find a different nuance and subtlety can be drawn out of each and every sip.
Historically, saisons were brewed in the colder months and kept until summer. Prerefrigeration, brewing in the summer was an impossible chore that almost guaranteed infection and spoiled beer. As such, they’d spend a bit of time chilling out in the cellar, mellowing, acquiring a good dose of complexity—and probably a touch of sour tang—during their stay in wooden casks. To help with their preservation, a healthy dose of hops was added, which would also contribute flavors and crispness of its own, while lending bitterness to balance the sweetness of the malt.
Another farmhouse-style beer marked by an extended aging period comes from the northern regions of France: bières de garde. Loosely translated as “beers for keeping,” bières de garde are often lumped into the same category as saisons, but they really deserve a category of their own. The aging process has evolved to resemble that of lighter-flavored lagers from neighboring Germany; the beers are often kept in large garde tanks that can be chilled down to around 32°F for upwards of four weeks. This keeps fruity esters that might be produced by the yeast strain at a minimum, leaving it largely up to the malt to provide any of the sweeter nuances characteristic of the style. Hops aren’t as evident in these beers as they are in saisons, but do sometimes offer a hint of spice, like a telltale anise flavor indicative of Brewers Gold hops grown in Alsace.
As with saisons, brewers have taken great liberties in regards to what defines a bière de garde, and beers ranging from blond to amber to brown can all be found classified as bière de garde. Regardless of the shade, bières de garde almost always lean toward a malty flavor profile, often with notes of caramel derived from a longer boil.
Both styles have undergone some transformations now that their production isn’t so much driven by folks needing to stay productive on the farm. Alcohol levels, in particular, have increased over the past several decades, with many commercial examples now in the 5–8% abv range, compared with the 2–4% most likely found in days of yore. But hey, I’m not one to complain about something so trivial. Are you? Shall we grab a bottle or two, a blanket, some cheese and go lay out in a field somewhere? Sure beats working!
HOMEWORK: BEERS TO TRY FROM THE OLD WORLD & THE NEW WORLD
BRASSERIE CASTELAIN (Bénifontaine, Pas de Calais, France)
Producers of the slightly sweet Castelain Blond Bière de Garde, the amber colored St. Amand French Country Ale and Jade, an organic, lower alcohol bière de garde.
BRASSERIE DUPONT (Tourpes, Hainaut, Belgium)
Saison Dupont is often considered the benchmark for the saison style, though brewmaster Olivier Dedeycker points to the milder Avril as something closer to what saisonniers used to drink.
THE BRUERY (Placentia, CA)
Saison Rue is a personal favorite, brewed year-round and spiked with a touch of rye, which contributes a nice spicy quality. Owner/CEO Patrick Rue describes it as having the “aroma and flavor of freshly baked bread, white pepper, damp cellar floor and ripe pear.” He calls their spring seasonal, Saison de Lente, a more traditional interpretation, with “leafy hops, cracker-like malt, light tropical fruitiness and a rustic, leather-like quality.”
LADYFACE ALE COMPANIE (Agoura Hills, CA)
A wheat saison named La Grisette was recently debuted, which Proprietor/General Manager Cyrena Nouzille describes as “pale-coloured, low alcohol, refreshing and light, brewed with acidulated barley to add a crisp tartness to the finish.” Also, their limited production bière de garde, Dérailleur, will soon be made year-round. Cyrena calls it “malty and rustic, with a spicy yeast character and subtle flavors of French oak.”
MONKISH BREWING COMPANY (Torrance, CA)
Floraison (from the French word for “blooming”) is a saison made with wheat and oats in addition to the malted barley. Brewmaster Henry Nguyen also adds chamomile and hibiscus during the boil and again during fermentation, resulting in, what he describes as “a beer that is robed in a pinkish-orange hue, with floral and herbal notes, earthy spice, and acidity.” Available in spring and summer, though they hope to brew several new saisons later this year. smog City Brewing Co. (Torrance, CA) L.A. Saison is made with French hops, French yeast, and a touch of malted wheat. Brewmaster Porter finds “an assertive white-pepper-like spice on the nose, as well as floral and light citrus notes from the hops, combining with what I call ‘wheat sweet’ on the mid-palate before a long, dry finish.”
THE LOST ABBEY (San Marcos, CA)
Avant Garde is a bière de garde (as the name implies) that’s beautiful in its restraint and world-class in its complexity. On the saison side, Red Barn Ale incorporates a much more assertive yeast strain that lends a spicy backdrop, as do the moderate additions of ginger, orange peel and black pepper.