Tuesday, July 17, 2012

[Beerie] Good Morning Saison

Brewery Vivant's Farm Hand, a saison-style ale
Last week on Beerie, I discussed summertime session ales in the context of the American craft brewers' and consumers' tendency to glorify all that which is overwrought over beers with a bit more subtlety and civility. Confusion ensued. "YOU KNOW, hops aren't the same as ABV." Yesthankyou. Now I shall use even more words to say what I already said but make it clearer so there is no further confusion.

IBU and ABV are indeed entirely separate, but what I'm ultimately trying to get at is that a very high one or the other (or God save the queen, in combination) is not the ideal summer beer. Devil Dancer, referenced previously, is brutal and I would no sooner reach for that on a scorching summer's day than I would a gallon of ammonia. But for perspective's sake, Hopslam is a brilliant beer and I wouldn't touch that during an unholy heat wave with someone else's tongue either (Bell's definitely got it right by making it a dead-of-winter seasonal).

By incorporating both high ABV and high IBU beers into the argument, what I am ultimately trying to say is that neither really cuts it for the thirst-quenching poundability I seek in a session beer. Because, you see, while "session" refers mostly to ABV, it also refers to its general all day drinkability, and I for one have yet to meet the monstrously hoppy "session" beer I want to drink all day. Maybe you're a chest-thumping "hop-head" and happy I am for you in that; it's a good thing I'm writing this column on my blog and not you then.

You see, when we glorify these palate-killing, high-alcohol, hoppy cock-punches what ultimately results is the devaluing of aaaaaaaaaall the many other lovely beer styles that are not those things. (I mean, ferchrissakes, this is supposed to be an inventory of the best beers in the world.) And many of said devalued beer styles just so happen to be NON-hoppy, low-ABV session beers. Once again, the German weissbiers, the English milds and bitters, the Belgian farmhouse ales, the kolsch beers, the pilsners. Sure, the hoppiness is unrelated to the ABV, but these styles happen to clock in low on both scales and for that reason they present as ideal for thirst-quenching summer consumption.

And so, saisons. Most definitely my favorite of all the session styles for summer probably in no small part due to the fact that this is what they were MADE for.

The traditional saison is a low-alcohol farmhouse ale born in Belgium, brewed specifically for workers of the late summer harvest to be consumed in large quantities without getting the workers wasted. Modern saisons have a little more ABV oomph (though many hover around 5-6%, which by American AND Belgian craft standards is about as low as you can reasonably hope for), though they still have preciously few IBUs (20-35, compared to the 30-50 of pale ales -- also good summertime drankin', BTW). Saisons are dry, crisp, "light" (or at least just seem that way, even when they're not), and have a delicate yet complex flavor thanks to the use of special yeast (as is the case with pretty much every Belgian style, saisons are way more about the yeast than the hops; hops are anathema to the Belgian palate, which could explain my predisposition).

Saisons really haven't been "in vogue" for awhile, but they never really went away either, and now they finally appear to be coming into fashion once again. Saison Dupont and Omegang's Hennepin are certainly among the most well-known, but we've got some fine saisons coming out of Michigan (and almost-Michigan) from the likes of Jolly Pumpkin, Brewery Vivant, New Holland, Bastone and Chicago's Goose Island. Now together let's espouse the superiority of saisons for summer!

Next week on Beerie: Bringing Sexy (Beer) Back: A Conversation with Brewmaster Mike Hall