When I drink a saison beer I feel like my mouth is having a very dry and witty and natural conversation that I wish could keep going forever, without resulting in hungover self-hatred the next day. But, seeing as this is the perfect summer beer for people who are a little bored with pilsners and hefeweizens, I gave myself a pass this weekend (for the sake of research!) Traditional saisons have tons of carbonation, yeast and citrus, with some malt, pepper and herbs to keep things interesting. All of these elements remain subtle and balanced–your tastebuds are engaged and curious, but not overwhelmed or stuck with any lingering flavors. This style is usually light and crisp enough to pair with any food or can be enjoyed by itself on the hottest summer days without feeling like you’re drinking a watery Budweiser cousin.
Saisons first originated in the 1800s, as a low-alcohol beverage to refresh thirsty farmhands working during the late summer harvest, since clean water wasn’t always readily available. In the past few years it seems the style has been having a resurgence, a trend that’s especially noticeable if you hang around craft beer stores. There’s a wide range to the modern saison style, and luckily, the alcohol content has surged from a farming-friendly 3% ABV to 6-8% ABV: perfect for desk jockeys who require refreshment after the late summer pixel-and-byte harvest. If you haven’t yet whiled away an August evening over a bottle, here are my picks for the best saisons of the season (so far):
1. Saison Dupont (6.5% ABV) If you’re new to saisons, or haven’t tried this one, or have wine-loving friends who feel iffy about beer, get this bottle. It’s cited by beer bloggers as a perennial classic, and it’s probably the easiest to find in your local beer store. It’s also delicious–very, very dry, with subtle pepper and spice, and just a bit of a tart bite. It’s one of the most versatile and drinkable “complex” beers I’ve had. Enjoy whenever, but especially during an unbearably hot summer afternoon barbecue. Available at Whole Foods Beer.
2. Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace (7.6% ABV) Take a classic saison, give it a richer malt flavor and lots of lemony sorachi hops, and you’ll end up with something close to this wonderful beer. It’s also bottle re-fermented with champagne yeast. I’m not sure what this does exactly, and I’d like to try aging one someday to see what happens, but I’ve never managed it. The Sorachi Ace has a really big, bold flavor due to the hops but is still really dry and summery. Drink on a hot summer night as a nightcap after a blazing hot oudoor concert. Available at Good Beer.
3. Fantôme Hiver (8% ABV) So, this is Fantôme’s “winter” saison, but I’ve been having a difficult time finding Fantôme beers, so I’m hailing it the best saison I’ve had in a summer filled with saisons. This has all of the classic saison elements, but they’re more pronounced than they are in the Saison Dupont. There’s lots of carbonation and lemony tartness up front, a bit of pepper, some malt mellowing that out, and a dry finish. On the whole, it’s a really balanced and drinkable brew even though there’s a lot going on in each sip. I’m not sure what’s wintery about it, except the malty notes maybe, and an alcohol level that is sure to put roses in your cheeks. Drink on a rooftop on one of those nights when there’s enough chill to wear a cardigan and consider socks. Available at Beer Street.
4. Jolly Pumpkin Luciernaga (6.5% ABV) This was a really enjoyable beer, especially if you like Belgian lambic styles. There’s a big grassy smell, lots of coriander, lemon, and hops, and just a bit of sourness. Not quite the face-puckering, Boon Oude Geuze sourness, but just a noticeable tartness lingering pleasantly on the finish, somewhere in between a grand cru and a saison. I was converted to trying all Jolly Pumpkin’s beers by this bottle. Drink at happy hour with your buddies at the end of a long, sucky work week. Available at Whole Foods Beer and Beer Street.
5. Saint Somewhere Saint Athene (7.5% ABV) Saint Athene is definitely the most “interesting” beer on this list, and that said, one glass is probably enough to satisfy. It’s dry, tart, and peppery, with lots of carbonation, and prominent herbal notes–coriander and rosemary especially, but I’d love someone to tell me what else their tastebuds find in there, because there’s plenty more. This is a challenging beer, while still being very pleasant and drinkable. Enjoy this with a good book when there’s nowhere in particular that you need to be. Available at Breukelen Bier Merchants.
Summer beering safety tip–watch out for a rocketing cork when you remove the wire cage, especially if your bottle is not fully chilled or been traveling a long way. Aim away from yourself and anyone you do not actually want to hit.