Although saison is a Belgian style, many of the best examples being made today are coming from American craft brewers who have taken to the style with great enthusiasm. The free-flowing framework of saison is very similar to the brewing philosophies of many American brewers, and the style seems to be finding new energy at their hands.
One of the most popular and widely available is Hennepin from Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown, New York. A dry, spicy, and relatively clean example of the style, it is pretty easy to find and a good starting point if you are just getting acquainted with the style. Boulevard Brewing Company out of Kansas City Missouri makes an outstanding strong saison titled simply, “Saison-Brett ” as a nod to the use of the wild yeast strain Brettanomyces during finishing; this gives the beer a dusty, funky, and lightly tart profile that is somewhat reminiscent of Fantome. Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales from Dexter, Michigan is perhaps the American brewery that most strongly reflects the Belgian farmhouse tradition. All of their beers are produced with open fermentation and see time in oak barrels where they pick up a distinctive mix of wild yeast and bacteria character that gives them a powerful signature. Bam Biere is one of their flagships and is an incredibly flavorful and refreshing saison that falls into the traditional range at only 4.5%ABV. The mix of woody and wild elements is subject to variation, and sourness develops with some time in the bottle, giving the beer a puckering and refreshing finish.
Being a California native, I have to give some credit to a few local brewers who are pumping out excellent saisons. The Lost Abbey down in North County San Diego has in recent years gained a reputation as one of the strongest American saison producers. Their standard saison, which was featured on the cover of our July issue, Red Barn Ale, is a particularly peppery take on the style. Read more »
I’m not nearly as experienced of a homebrewer as many of the other people attending the National Homebrewers Conference this past weekend at Mission Valley’s Town and Country Resort, but I’ve brewed a batch or two of beer in the past and plan to brew more in the future, and knew that regardless of homebrewing experience, I would take away a lot of general beer knowledge from the conference.
The highlight of the conference for me was a seminar given by Drew Beechum, President of the Los Angeles’s Maltose Falcon’s titled, A Saison for Every Season. Beechum, whose love of Saison’s seems to exceed mine (and I love Saisons), focused on what in my opinion makes Saison’s one of the most interesting beer styles: the yeast. Beechum brewed a fairly basic Saison recipe at Eagle Rock Brewery in Los Angeles and then separated the wort into different carboys pitching different yeast in each. All told about thirteen different yeasts were used and during the presentation we got to taste seven of them. With the only difference between each sample being the yeast, it was pretty striking how different from each other each was. My favorite, and according to a show of hands the favorite of many other people was the sample fermented with White Lab’s WLP585, it had a big ginger and citrus flavor and was pretty tart, unfortunately this yeast strain isn’t commercially available.
In addition to the differences in yeast, another takeaway from Beechum’s talk was his modern ideas about farmhouse ales. Very few (if any) of us are exclusively using ingredients we grow ourselves in our beers, but Beechum suggested the modern definition of farmhouse ale could be to use ingredients that are locally available to you as a brewer. “If this beer style were to arise around you, what would you be using?” Beechum asked. He did admit that living in Southern California we get to cheat a little because of the abundant variety of produce available to us. A few hours later at Club Night Beechum proved that he practices what he preaches with his Guacamole Saison, a Saison brewed with Avocado Honey and all the herbs and spices one would expect to find in guacamole. It didn’t taste like liquid guacamole (and I think that’s a good thing) but many of the flavors came through to make it an enjoyable, if slightly unusual, beer.
Another seminar with some great information was Jolly Pumpkin’s Ron Jeffries’s Brewing with Unusual Ingredients. Jeffries talked about, and shared recipes for, some of Jolly Pumpkin’s more unusual and experimental beers while giving tips and tricks on how and when to use these uncommon ingredients. Among the more unusual ingredients Jeffries offered information on were things like kale and spinach (shred and add to mash), bacon fat (rack onto it, drop the temperature and then rack off leaving the fat on the bottom) and basil (“Don’t put basil in beer”, Jeffries said with a laugh, offering up no further explanation).
The party is still going on as I write these words. Yesterday I braved the after-work traffic from North Park to Vista. Friday the 15th marked the beginning of Iron Fist’s weekend-long Grand Opening Celebration. I arrived to a full tasting room tucked away in the industrial park zone of Vista, and had to nudge my way into a spot at the bar for beer and info. The place was packed.
I caught the ear of Brandon Sieminski, Iron Fist BrewMaster. To my question on construction time, he responded that there was a bit of an ordeal that took 5-6 months. “It was worth it,” he responded with a smirk and a gesture to the multitude of smiling faces. The Iron Fist team, which is mostly family, hails from San Marcos. “We’re locals – so this was a natural decision to set up nearby. The city of Vista was very accommodating.” The elegant woodwork that dominates the interior style and design of the tasting room was stained by the family themselves.