Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Sweet Song of Saisons

Interviewing New Belgium's Kim Jordan while writing "Mountain Brew," I was struck by a comment she made about brewing a saison in 1996 and receiving such a bad reception that they didn't brew one again until 2008. What a strange beer world, it would seem, that didn't want the refreshing taste of a saison in it.

But we are now living in the age of the saison - the classic, the crafty, even the absolute crazy. Want it with just a hint of spice to it? OK. Want it brewed with sarsaparilla, sassafras, coriander and hibiscus? That's fine too. Hell, they're both made by the same brewer, in fact.

At Vail Big Beers, Trinity Brewing's Jason Yester, that aforementioned brewer and the man who's made 60 different saisons with 80 different ingredients, pointed out the number of saisons judged at the Great American Beer Festival grew from 37 five years ago to about 90 in 2013. But he also noted one of the great key's to the style's success: There is little definition to what exactly a saison is, other than a beer in a genre that evolved from a non-specific style in Belgian farmhouses to one that allows for great creativity today.

One of the beers that the Fearless Tasting Crew kept in its fridge at that festival - you know, the beers you can drink even when your tastebuds are shot - was Trinity's La Capitaine, a blond saison regale brewed with pumpkin, cacao nibs and Buddha's Hand, then tossed about with some brett and lacto until it's done just right. It's sharp and pungent and slightly spicy, with a feel that oscillates wonderfully between grape and perfume.

But if Trinity is the known - and if you don't know it, you should get to - festivals like Big Beers allow for the exploration of the unknown as well.

Dann Paquette, owner of Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, brought in his Jack D'Or, a smooth beer (with blurry label art above)
 that's higher on the bitterness scale than most other saisons but still very dry. And it, like the style, was both intriguing and drinkable.

Then, there was Mystic Brewing - like Pretty Things, a Massachusetts brewery - which offered its Descendant, a black saison made with molasses that was sweet but not overdone.

And, staying in Massachusetts for a second, there is also Cambridge Brewing, which has found a way to make a black-pepper farmhouse ale in its Sgt. Pepper (at right) and feel welcoming without being overpowering.

More Colorado breweries too are cranking up saison offerings. Both Funkwerks - the 2012 GABF Small Brewery of the Year - and Black Fox are all-saison maestros, blending peppers, fruit and everything you might think shouldn't go into a beer. And doing it well.

And you see non-saison breweries experimenting more with their offerings too. From Great Divide's Colette - which it makes even more special by kicking it up with orange zest and pepper - to Crooked Stave's slightly tart Vieille Artisanal Saison, the variety out there can be stunning.

So, what's the point? Unlike 1996, it's a damn good time to drink saison, whether you're in Denver or Boston or anywhere in between. And if you encounter one that might seem a little strange, drink it all the same; chances are it will be dry, smooth and just exciting enough to make your night.

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