Hopped Up

The Other, Other Summer Beer: Saison Season

"Summer beers have almost become so dumbed down that people are searching for more in their flavor."

By Stefan Milne August 18, 2016

Saison up2ju3

Photo via Holy Mountain's Facebook. 

With our weather finally waxing idyllic, Seattle taplists are replete with the usual suspects: lagers, summer ales, wheat beers, and, for those hopeless hopheads, session IPAs. But—perhaps especially this summer—plenty of saisons now funk those lists up too.

The name translates to “season” but the season it refers to, even for many beer lovers, has grown hazy. Perhaps that’s because one of Seattle’s standby saisons—Fremont’s Harvest Ale—was a fall seasonal, while other breweries feature them in spring (see Stoup’s Bike Rye’d Saison), or year round: it’s a canned and constant staple at Hilliard’s.

But the saison’s namesake season is summer. Traditionally, this farmhouse-style, Belgian-born ale was offered as payment to seasonal workers, “saisonniers,” as refresher for bodies sweating in summer fields. The style is frequently peppery, fruity, funky, acidic, yet soft and clean and balanced. It doesn’t approach the puckering aggression of a sour, or the heady perfume of many tripels.

It’s been kicking around Seattle’s taplists for a few years, like the quiet eccentric cousin to more established brews, but now most of the city’s craft taplists feature at least one. Reuben’s has a couple, one oaked. Fremont releases the Lamb, a limited release oaked saison, on August 16th. Elysian has one brewed with peppercorns (Saison Poivre), another with guava puree (Saison de Muntz). And with their move to Magnolia, Urban Family shifted focus to the style. They currently pour four with two more on the way.

And two of our best newer breweries highlight the style. Cloudburst’s small taplist currently features two iterations of its Market Fresh Saison and a third on its way—it’s outnumbered only by IPAs. But when you mention saisons, brewers repeat one name almost mantrically: Holy Mountain, Seattle’s temple of wild yeast worship, where they have a constant rotation of farmhouse and saison beers. They note yeast strains the way others note hops.

Saisons are a bit of beermaker’s beer—brewers at Holy Mountain and Urban Family and Cloudburst all saying they’re drawn to the challenge of using volatile wild yeasts. Cloudburst owner/brewer Steve Luke noted, “Even brewers never really know how their fermentations going to go. It keeps things interesting from our aspect.”

It also pairs gracefully with food—both in the beer (see Cloudburst's current pair: strawberry and mint, peach and grains of paradise) and on the plate. Holy Mountain has done dinners with Salare, DeLaurenti, and most recently Le Petit Cochon. “Chefs really like the broad spectrum of flavors coming out of these beers,” said Holy Mountain brewer Colin Lenfesty. “They’re simple but it doesn’t overshadow anything.”

Cloudburst—like Urban Family and Holy Mountain—brews saisons year round, but citywide summer is still its prime season. Luke said, “Summer beers have almost become so dumbed down that people are searching for more in their flavor, and that’s where the Saison lends itself. They really open up.”

So if you find yourself, on some sundoused patio, wishing for an imperial stout’s freefalling flavor layers, but not wanting its brooding 10 percent ABV, consider the saison: cloudy and sunny, funky and fickle, so much like Seattle summer.

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