As we beckon in the spring weather that has tempted us with its sprinkling of sunny days, it’s high time for me to start imbibing one of my favorite beer styles for this season — the Saison.
Saisons sparkle with bubbles that dance across the tongue, making them a wonderful, refreshing food-pairing beer. They are often the color of golden poppies, and glow with an air of romance in late afternoon sunlight. They’re dry and earthy, with hints of yeast-derived spice. When the trees start to blossom, when the air smells of rich soil, and when the days linger just a little bit longer, I know it’s time to start moving my Saison bottles from my cellar to my fridge.
Saisons originated in the 1700s in an area of southern Belgium known as Wallonia, and were brewed by small farmhouse breweries. Lacking the modern day amenity of temperature control, beers were brewed and kept in the winter months to prevent spoilage. They would then emerge for consumption in the spring and summer as seasonal field hands migrated to the area. The seasonality of these beers are why the word Saison translates from French to “season.”
Saisons were an essential part of farm life, because it is what was given to workers while working long days in the fields. Part of the reason this was the case is because beer often was safer to consume than the possibly contaminated local water sources. Additionally, Saisons provided nourishment for the long days laboring in the hot sun. For this reason, I often joke that Saisons are like Gatorade — restoring the body after strenuous work.
I’ve often been asked if Saisons and Farmhouse Ales are synonymous. For some breweries, this is the case. In actuality, Farmhouse Ales are an umbrella category, encompassing a variety of beer styles. Saisons are Farmhouse Ales, but there are many other types out there, such as the Bière de Garde, Gueuze, Grisette and Sahti, to name a few.
Bière de Garde originated in Northern France, and translates to “beer for keeping.” Like Saisons, they were brewed in farmhouses for consumption during the warmer months. They are far maltier and have a more prominent alcohol taste.
Gueuze (not to be confused with Gose, a separate beer style) historically come from Brussels, and — you guessed it — were also first brewed on farms. These are lambic-style beers that have been blended, usually combining aged vintages with fresher brews to create a perfectly balanced taste. For you sour beer lovers, this is the Farmhouse Ale for you — they tend to be quite tart and acidic.
Grisettes are not technically farm-derived, but they are so closely related to this tradition that they also fall under the Farmhouse Ales genus. They were born in Belgium’s Hainaut region, and instead of being brewed for farmhands, were brewed for miners to provide sustenance as they worked. They are very similar to Saisons.
Sahtis, derived from the Finnish farmhouse tradition, are sweet and strong. They have a distinct flavor from the rye and juniper twigs they’re brewed with.
Of all the Farmhouse Ales, I have the strongest affinity for Saisons. They are truly the perfect beer to usher in warm weather.
Amy Martin is a member of the North American Guild of Beer Writers and is on the Governing Committee of the American Homebrewers Association. She is marketing assistant and membership coordinator at Stormcloud Brewing Company in Frankfort. Reach Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org.