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Lessons in beer aging: Saisons

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Saisons were never meant to be aged. If you read this blog, you already know that the zippy Belgian ale originated in Wallonian farmhouses, intended as employee refreshment; they’re kind of the O.G. session beers. Cellar a saison, and you’d lose those beautiful fruity esters, the light touch of earthy hops, and the liquid life that is distinctly “saisony.”

And then Americans started brewing them. A few years ago, breweries such as Funkwerks and Stillwater Artisan Ales began releasing big, beautiful saisons that simultaneously gave those beer makers clout, introduced Americans to the traditional Belgian style, and gave saisons a second career as “that beer you drink if you know craft beer.” These new saisons were mega-hopped, funked-up and fruited, and—perhaps most notably—they were stronger than the saisons of yore. Always suckers for high ABVs, cellar rats carefully started stockpiling some of the high-alcohol bottles.

We began cellaring saisons around 2011 (except for our brave 2008 Pelican bottle), when the new wave of saisons was cresting. And two years later, we wondered how they’ve been resting. Nobody aged saisons until recently, so nobody knows exactly how to age saisons; we thought we’d open a few of ours and see where things stood. Below, the six saisons we popped, and the lessons learned from each.

Weyerbacher Seventeen

Brewed to celebrate the brewery’s 17th anniversary, this “super saison” packed pink peppercorns and orange, grapefruit and lemon zest into a 10.5%-ABV brew that the brewery said would “age very, very well.” Today, yeast, spice and citrus are there, but they’re not as prominent as they likely once were. Instead, we were hit with alcohol that was nearing astringency. A quick look at some online reviews showed that this beer was quite hot to begin with, so its nap mellowed out the alcohol heat at bit. WHAT WE LEARNED: Specialty ingredients age well in burlier beers (think stouts) because their stronger malts support them; fruit and spice don’t seem to do as well in more delicate saisons, as the additions just don’t have much to hang on to.

New Glarus Imperial Saison 2012

Additions of ginger and grains of paradise pump up this beautiful, bottle-conditioned “imperial” saison (“imperial” because of its 8.7% ABV; certainly not the highest of these six bottles). This has to be one of the best aging saisons in existence: winter-warmer-like notes of cherry, apricot and ginger swell in a swallow that’s still plenty bubbly. The most perfect hint of must and a very appropriate booziness make it the ideal saison for cellarfolk. We couldn’t stop talking about how gorgeously it would pair with a buttery croissant. WHAT WE LEARNED: Bottle-conditioned beers (those with yeast added to the bottle before it’s sealed) should age a bit to develop appropriately—even saisons. This bottle’s perfect storm—bottle conditioning, strong malt presence, high (but not too high!) alcohol—let it age so well, even dainty grains of paradise still shine on the tongue.

Pelican Saison du Pelican 2008

Pelican was housing its saison in large bottles before most American brewers, and while we’ve wanted to open this for years, we stuck to our guns and used this bottle as our little saison-aging experiment. Let’s just say a five-year-old saison: No longer a saison. The beer wasn’t terrible; it tasted like a brown ale past its prime, totally flat and lacking any saison characteristic whatsoever. WHAT WE LEARNED: Age can make a good saison bad. Five years is way too long; aim for a year, no more than two.

Boulevard Saison-Brett 2012

Most beers conditioned with Brettanomyces yeast will continue to develop in the cellar, so we didn’t hesitate to stow the 2012 release of Boulevard’s dry-hopped, Bretted version of its lovely Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale. Normally a great ager—some reviewers are still getting good results with the original 2011 release—we knew ours was doomed when the cork flew out of our bottle before we could fully release the cage. The beer was thin and soapy; one way or another, our bottle was infected. WHAT WE LEARNED: Bottles get infected. It happens. The main lesson here? Buy multiple bottles! Thank goodness you can still find this year’s floral, fruity, fantastic release on tap.

Epic Elder Brett

Our bottle was marked “release 2;” that batch was brewed in November 2011 and released in November 2012. (Oh, and it’s a collaboration with Crooked Stave Artisan Beer, the unofficial king of Brettanomyces yeast.) Sure, the beer had been built to age, but how long would it last? We popped it open to find a delightful barklike must, vivid green apple sweet-and-sour character and the perfect saison fluffiness in the back of the mouth. It’s not a Brett-crazy beer; the yeast lends a distinct barnyard note, but the beer’s still very palatable. You’d never guess it had a 9.5% ABV. WHAT WE LEARNED: The Brett developed this beer’s classic saison texture and light tartness. Brett can morph a beer over the course of many months, making for great cellar candidates; look for saisons with Brett, or other bacteria that motivate change.

Crooked Stave Surette 2011

This one’s all Crooked Stave (here’s a primer on the brewery’s Chad Yakobson), and the beer proves that the hype surrounding the brewery’s work with yeast is legit. Surette is a 6.2% saison (just a “farmhouse ale,” according to the bottle), made with a complex malt bill of barley, rye, wheat, oats and spelt; fermented with a blend of bacteria and wild yeast; and aged in oak. Ours was bottle 947 of 1599, one of batch 7/11. A few years old, but you’d never know it: The beer was as lively as ever—soft, fresh and effervescent, like a good saison should be. It was also ultrasour (hello, Brett!); sour apple and lemon tartness stung our cheeks. Wisps of wood tangoed with the barnyardy yeast notes and the Brett funk for a multilayered approach to sour beer. We were simply floored at how well this aged. WHAT WE LEARNED: A more elaborate malt bill will lent to the complexity of the sip, giving the yeast something to bite. And Brettanomyces and other bacteria pushed this beer into greatness, proving a beer doesn’t need a high ABV to age wonderfully.

SUMMARY: We believe in the power of beer aging, so we fully intend to keep cellaring saisons—but we’ll pull them out after a year. Want to find a few saisons to put in your cellar? Look for saisons that are one of these:

  • Barrel-aged. The brewer made the beer with aging in mind, and tweaked the recipe so it would respond well to (some) time.
  • Bottle-conditioned. Extra yeast in the bottle (and more fermentable sugar, if the beer’s primed) mean the beer will continue to evolve in flavor and texture.
  • Contain organisms that develop over time: Lactobacillus and Pediococcus bacteria will continue to sour a beer over about two years; Brettanomyces yeast will develop nearly as long.
  • Have a complex malt bill. A light, breezy saison will fade over time, but a heftier version with a dynamic malt structure—a little wheat, a little rye, and/or several varieties of barley—will age better and give the hops, yeast and any other ingredients something to grasp.

Don’t just look at the ABV; that number matters little in a delicate style like saisons. Boozy beers only age well when they have a strong malt spine. And, of course, don’t age saisons too long: Aim for one to two years.

 

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4 Comments

  • humblebrewer says:

    Mostly an informative article, and a great message to drink beer fresh. However there is one aspect that’s inaccurate in the Surette comments: “It was also ultrasour (hello, Brett!)” Please, please, please stop propagating the misunderstanding that Brett makes beer sour. It just doesn’t. Very rarely is sourness in beer from Brett. If you’re getting big acetic or lactic sourness, it’s likely from bacteria (lactobacillus or pediococcus). Thanks!

  • Mike_taylor says:

    “…the yeast lends a distinct barnyard note,”

    In cigar reviews, that means it smells like a cow crapped on it somewhere along the way. Same thing here? ;-)

  • Caseysunshineable says:

    Thanks. I have about 9 weyerbacher 17s in my cellar. I’m opening the first tonight, which has aged about a year. We’ll see how it goes. I was originally going to open one each year, but not sure if that’s a good idea from what’s said above.

  • John says:

    As a microbiologist and home brewer, I can attest to the acidogenic qualities of brettanomyces. Anyone to tell you otherwise is extrapolating experiences or ignoring fact.

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