What is a saison, and how does it differ from a farmhouse ale?
Apparently the answer to this question is neither simple, nor is it widely agreed upon. I did some preliminary reading a few months ago before buying my beers, and the distinction was incredibly blurry to me. Some claimed that the two terms were interchangeable, and others described “farmhouse” as a type of saison. After thoroughly confusing myself I decided to sample both types, just to make sure they were both, you know, tasty.
Then it dawned on me … to the Twitter I shall go! I tweeted my question to Ray Daniels of the Cicerone Certification Program, expecting to get a clear answer. He did reply with an excellent one, but then ensued a rather large (and unexpected, by me) wave of comments and opinions about the use of the word farmhouse and the definition of saison in the modern sense. (Apparently Ray Daniels is kind of a big deal, and when he tweets, other tweet-makers perk up their Twitters and listen.)
Here were the highlights:
Here’s what I learned:
• A saison is always a farmhouse, but a farmhouse isn’t necessarily a saison.
• The history of saisons is clear, and the definition of saison in the classic & traditional sense is clear, too – it’s the modern interpretation that has become blurred due to widespread experimentation of modern day brewers, and in some cases, a lack of knowledge resulting in the incorrect labeling of beers.
• I like beer. No wait, I already knew that.
If you ask the BJCP, a saison is:
“a pale, refreshing, highly-attenuated, moderately-bitter, moderate-strength Belgian ale with a very dry finish. Typically highly carbonated, and using non-barley cereal grains and optional spices for complexity, as complements the expressive yeast character that is fruity, spicy, and not overly phenolic. Less common variations include both lower-alcohol and higher-alcohol products, as well as darker versions with additional malt character.”
You can read the full BJCP description here.
But, if you ask Draft Magazine about the style they recently pointed out that “many of the beers bearing the saison name aren’t saisons at all,” and ask if “we should simply get used to more wildness in our saisons.”
Here’s what’s not up for debate: the French word saison translates to season, and this style of beer was traditionally made to quench the thirst of “seasoners,” or farmhands that needed a good draaank after working in the hot fields all day. The quintessential example of the style is the first one I tasted:
Saison Dupont (Brasserie Dupont)
Belgian Farmhouse Ale, 6.5% ABV
Appearance: Light yellow-gold, hazy, actively effervescent, with a giant, pillowy head of fluffy, dense bubbles.
Aroma: Lemon, slightly skunky, old hops (akin to cheese), sulfury
Mouthfeel: medium, but very bubbly–the bubbles scrub the palate pretty hard
Flavor: pepper, lemon, grass, dry finish, medium-low bitterness that’s grassy & herbal, citrus rind, pithy bitterness in the finish
Hugo (4 Hands & Brasserie Dunham collaboration)
Dry-hopped Saison, 5.5% ABV
Appearance: Moderately hazy yellow-gold with active bubbles and a bubbly head of fluff
Aroma: Lime, lemon, orange, and a tiny bit fusely
Mouthfeel: light and bubbly
Flavor: very bright and clean with intense flavors of lemon, lime, bitter pith, cheese, with a bitter Brett finish
Tank 7 (Boulevard Brewing Company)
Farmhouse Ale (though, specifically classified as a saison by the BJCP), 8.5%
Appearance: Hazy gold with active towers of bubbles and a towering head of fluffy foam
Aroma: Sweet, funky, pepper, astringent
Mouthfeel: Medium-full, creamy
Flavor: Pepper, bitter grapefruit, simultaneously sweet and dry. Probably the hoppiest of all the beers I tried, its bitterness is balanced by a sweet, malty backbone.
I’m not sure that the following beers technically qualify as traditional saisons. Anyone? (Again, if we’re being technical, a farmhouse is not necessarily a saison, but a true saison is always a farmhouse ale.)
Farm Hand (Brewery Vivant)
French Style Farmhouse, 5.5% ABV
Appearance: Crystal clear at first glance, but has a slight haze. Gold with active bubbles and a lively head that dissipates quickly
Aroma: Lemon, wheat, lime peel
Mouthfeel: light and smooth
Flavor: Mild flavors of pepper, lemon, wheat, light malt, white grape, slightly bitter, with a sweet finish
Bam Bier (Jolly Pumpkin)
Dry-hopped Farmhouse Ale, 4.5% ABV
Appearance: Hazy yellow gold with a big fluffy head of bubbles
Aroma: Wild yeast, brett, skunky, grassy, earthy funk
Mouthfeel: medium, fairly smooth with some effervescence
Flavor: Funky, lime zest, lemon, floral like potpourri, peppery finish, bright up front with a creamy backbone
I’m of the mind that the traditional definition of beer styles should always exist for posterity, and that these definitions do accurately describe many beers whose brewers prefer to stick to these guidelines when creating beer. However, more and more brewers are experimenting, and some classic categories do little to describe new types of beer that have evolved out of traditional categories.
In another bout of beer thoughts, it seems to me that beer and art are not that different. Both are affected by social and political events and both taste delicious. (Just kidding, you can’t eat beer.) But why not classify beer, as art is, by movements or periods in time as they relate to human events? In addition to a style, a beer is contained within a time period and social context – why not name these as well, for clarification? For instance, a Dawn of the Craft Beer Age IPA would be very clear and very bitter, but a Beer Nouveau IPA would be hazy and cloudy with very low bitterness. Calling them West Coast versus East Coast no longer applies because we have brewers across the country making both styles of IPA.
What do you think? Should wild-fermented saisons be called saisons? Should we invent a new category for this subset of saisons? Should we force brewers to follow specific rules in order to call their brews beer at all? The debate continues …