If there’s one style of beer we’ve been seeing most often at the DRAFT offices lately (other than fruit-flavored brews, god bless ‘em), it’s saison. This would normally be a thing to celebrate—the dry, effervescent Belgian ale is a quenching, crushable yet complex brew that’s just as welcome in a plastic cup on a hot day as it is in stemmed glassware at your dinner table. But many of the beers bearing the saison name aren’t saisons at all.
Take Saison Chene Rustique, a bottle we wrote about recently from Toolbox Brewing Co. in San Diego. Oak-aged for four months with a bevy of bacteria, including lactobacillus plantarum, lactobacillus brevis, pediococcus damnosus and three different strains of brettanomyces bruxellensis, the beer is tremendously complex, but also powerfully tart. Delicious? You bet. But is it a saison? Not if you’re going off BJCP or Brewers Association style guidelines, which generally hold that the beer be “a pale, refreshing, highly-attenuated, moderately-bitter, moderate-strength Belgian ale with a very dry finish” and advise brewers to place beers made with Brettanomyces into an entirely different category. Acidity is mild, if present at all.
But a large and growing number of beers called saison are bordering on the tartness of traditionally super-sour styles, like lambic and gueuze. What gives?
“I view many of our beers as old world-style farmhouse ales, often called Saison,” says Troy Casey, founder and brewmaster at Casey Brewing & Blending. “Modern saisons are often pure culture renditions of what they used to be: mixed culture, often tart from natural lactic acid bacteria. Some people might call them wild ales since there is acidity to them, but I view the acid the same way as bitterness or sweetness, so I don’t think just because there is acid that it makes it a wild beer. I understand many people would disagree with me and think our beers would fit more in the wild ale category, but I think American brewers making overtly sweet and phenolic beers using a single strain of ‘saison’ yeast is a bigger problem than stereotyping any farmhouse beer with acidity as a wild ale.”
What we now consider the “classic” saison, Casey argues, was determined after controlled yeast fermentation was discovered by Louis Pasteur. Had the style been the purview of brewers and beer geeks, rather than something mostly crafted by rural farmers and migrant workers, our definition of a classic style saison would be much different.
Cory King of Side Project Brewing also calls many of his mixed-fermentation sour ales saisons, though he differentiates between those and more intensely acidic and funky “wild ales.”
“Our Saisons (Saison du Fermier, Saison du Ble, Biere du Pays, etc.) on paper look like Saisons, are fermented with Saison yeast strains and are produced as traditionally as possible,” King says. “With that, traditional Saisons were meant to be light, refreshing and were sometimes influenced by the local microflora of the farm/location in which they were brewed. I strive for the same thing with our Saisons, allowing the local microflora to influence their flavor (tart, funky but unlike the modern Saisons of Dupont and etc.). Our Wild Ales are more of an experimentation with fermentation, exhibiting even higher levels of acidity and Brett influence and often looking nothing like any categorical beer on paper. Even though both have wild yeast and bacteria in them, I work for my Saisons to be softer, more delicate, more ‘crushable’ and be what I would want if I was working on a hot farm.”
Still, Saison DuPont, the archetype off the style, is as far from this new class of uber-tart ales as a pale ale is from a triple IPA. Perhaps a new designation is in order. I’d go with “farmhouse ale,” a term long used as an alternative to saison that better captures the rusticity of these ales and evokes the traditional methods (i.e. mixed, souring strains) used to make them.
But perhaps, as is occurring with IPA, the style definition itself is shifting and broadening, and we should simply get used to more wildness in our saisons. What do you think?