What was a rural beer from Heinault in Wallonian Belgium has had a huge revival. If it’s possible for a style to change its spiritual home, than Saison has. Not only is the style being recreated in each new brewery in Britain’s cities, but it’s long been a native of America and is to be found there more than in its lands of origin. Its stamp is in the more modern term farmhouse. It also shares custody with Lambic for wild beers, is a bedfellow to cider and can even stare down white wine.
I find Saisons are usually cask-averse – better from keg or bottle. There have been some notable exceptions, (Erasmus by Red Squirrel and 13 by XT Brewing by my own bias) but they’re notable precisely because they’re exceptions. Saison is better cooler. It was always supposed to refresh – not to be sessioned in pints.
As my control subject I’m nominating Saison Dupont by Brasserie Dupont. It was one of only 12 listed Saisons in Michael Jackson’s 1991 guide to Belgian beer. This Belgian Saison is as rated internationally as it’s possible to be. It’s a hazy straw gold with notes of hay and white wine on the nose. It has a strong carbonation and tastes of Champagne and decaying fruit. It hits the roof of the mouth and dries you out. When I think of the style, I think of this. It’s the high bar I’ll be hoping the following beers reach.
The beers in this tasting come from three countries:
We have a fellow Belgian – St Feuillen Saison
We then have a Brit – Buxton Brewery’s New world Saison (no link at the time of writing).
We also have Anchor Brewing’s Saison from the USA.
St Feuillen Saison – unfiltered can 6.5 ABV:
It’s custard yellow and quite cloudy with a white hop oil silken head. It smells of wet straw and lemony hops but with a touch of honey too. The honey note is most pronounced when you sniff the can’s opening. This beer’s perfect from the fridge – the carbonated liquid leaps over the palate and cools the roof of the mouth.
On the taste I get notes of grass, elderflower and chamomile tea. It has a creamy mouthfeel that reminds me of chewing on barley stalks which really pushes the countryside analogy along. It has a medium dry finish a bit like a fruity white wine and even a sweet nutty aftertaste.
Buxton Brewery New World Saison – bottle conditioned 6.3 ABV:
It pours an amber orange. The head top builds up into a proud elastic white cloud which lasts the distance – I’m guessing from the addition of wheat. It has a very tangy aroma; very musty with an Alt-y stickiness and orange peel zest. It’s delicious to inhale.
It has a charging carbonation but a light mouthfeel – both things that compliment and reinforce each other. I taste caramel too. There’s a bitter spirit estery edge and brandy grapes. There’s a dry mouthfeel and dry finish. It parts on sticky and throaty orange UFO sweets followed by a fruit belch. The head remains down the glass like velvet grouting. It had me on the aroma alone!
Anchor Brewing Saison – bottle 7.2 ABV:
This third high ABV Saison is made with the addition of lemongrass, lemon peel and ginger. It decants a gorgeous glowing amber and is light-refracting crystal clear with a soft lily lather on top.
It smells like a really malty beer like Shepherd Neame’s Bishop’s Finger or an ale of that ilk – something I certainly hadn’t expected. Maybe it’s a light dose of ginger coming through like ginger loaf. I get sponge cake – lemon drizzle with a touch of blitzed grass. It has a very subdued carbonation too like a malty cask bitter. This isn’t the first time I’ve picked up British cask beer notes on an American beer. I never expected to find them in a Saison.
On the sip I taste pear drops, malt loaf and orange lockets. It’s tangy on the roof of the mouth. I like this beer but wouldn’t have recognised it as a Saison – especially not like the control subject at the top of the post. There’s no particular dryness. It’s fruity and glucose all the way through. Badger Bitter? Ringwood Old Thumper? I can’t get these old boys out of my head.
My palate has dictated a clear winner in this taste-off:
Anchor’s Saison bewildered me and comes last as I didn’t get the levity, the carbonation, the sourness or frankly the soul associated with Saisons. Its greatest draw was its colour. If it had called itself simply “Spring Ale” which is also on its label, it would’ve made more sense.
St Feuillen’s Saison comes second. It was a delight to the senses too and proves that the style doesn’t suffer any ill effects from the canning process either. It reminded me of the tastes and smells (the pleasant ones) of the farm.
The medal goes to Buxton Brewery with their New World Saison. The only problem is it wasn’t around for long being (appropriately enough) a seasonal as is its counterpart Old World Saison, but I don’t know whether it’ll be brewed again. It proves that new world hops can really compliment a Saison provided you don’t let them take over. It retained its lightness and carbonation and delivered much of its character on the aroma. At 6.3 ABV just be careful swinging that scythe, though.
We love golden harvests, smocks, rosy-cheeked peasants and all things bucolic and wholesome – especially when it’s from a completely imagined past. Whether or not Saison started as a low alcohol summer slaker for farm labourers, or whether there have always been heavier Saisons isn’t certain; something pondered by Michael Jackson in his Great Beers of Belgium. When it was first published in 1991, the author actually had to hunt Saisons down within Belgium. He was partly responsible for making it popular in America, and Britain was in turn influenced by that vogue in the USA.
Let’s raise a toast to Michael for bringing it to all of us!
Other world beer vertical tastings: