Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Time of the Saison

Tucked back into the corner of Saturday's Funk and Farm Fest at Nighthawk Brewery, Trinity Brewing and Mu Brewery had an intriguing duo of beers on tap. Trinity was pouring a Saison Delivery - made with apples and grains of paradise and aged in chardonnay barrels - that was blowing everyone away by being tart and fruit-forward without being either blistering or cloying. And Mu was serving up a Key Lime Saison with Brett aged in Merlot barrels that, if slightly less polished, was a bold experiment at amping up both the sweetness and the pucker factor.

While different, the two beers offered great examples of just how many exciting directions the world of saison brewing is going. Surrounding them were farmhouse ales that tasted vaguely of cotton candy that cut through your taste buds with a sour golden bite and that clashed a sharp tartness with the big taste of the whiskey barrel in which they were aged - each one worthy of kudos.

To think, when New Belgium tried to introduce a saison 20 years ago - a story I recounted in my book, "Mountain Brew" - beer drinkers didn't take to it because they largely weren't ready for the traditional Belgian style to blend with the rising flavors of hops and roasted barley in America. Now no major brewery is without one in its portfolio, and the best are rolling out more and more variations - Great Divide's full, fruity and slightly flowery Nadia Kali hibiscus saison being the latest really tasty one to hit the market - just to keep up with demand.

To what should we attribute the saison boom? A big factor is the demand among beer geeks for more that is different and cutting edge. Saison as a style allows for greater experimentation that most, presenting a slightly estery, slightly spicy base that lends itself to a ton of different adjuncts. But it also is a medium-bodied beer that can appeal to a wide range of drinkers, depending on what is thrown into the brew kettle.

I think back to my birthday party in 2015, when I asked friends to bring a saison and we did a blind taste testing to determine our favorite. That a Casey Brewing and Blending Saison won the general poll was not a surprise, as the Glenwood Springs beer auteur has managed to craft a version of the style that is bright and slightly tart and excites the taste buds continually. But the variety of saisons that scored high in our tallies - from Epic's Sour Apple Saison to Three Barrel's peppery Pemba Sherpa Saison - made it clear that there was a lot to like on the market.

Similarly, Nighthawk's farmhouse festival left few stones un-turned. Wynkoop's Forethought Barrel-Aged Sour Saison was a jolting and fascinating combination of strong flavors. Atom Brewing's Arlo farmhouse-inspired ale presented a huge sweetness developed surprisingly through open-air fermentation. Spangalang's Ethel, a sour saison, was bright and eye-opening without being punishing on the taste buds.

There is a lot to enjoy in the greater saison field today. But what is more exciting is the nearly blank slate from which brewers can develop more creative and more challenging saison varieties to come. The style may have originated with farm owners in Belgium and France. But what American brewers are doing with it is taking it to a whole new level.

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