Sunday, 2 February 2014

Beers You Can Actually Buy: Saisons

Continuing with the success of my Beers You Can Actually Buy Series, which considers regularly available and easier to find marvels of brewing mastery, I will here delve into the increasingly trendy Saison style.  In ways this is akin to the hipster beer of beer geekdom - not quite yet as trendy as IPAs (something to have been into before they were cool) but subtly a rising star in beer circles sought out by the underground crowd.

Saisons aren't the most well known of beer styles, or perhaps even the sexiest or most flamboyant, but they have a wide diversity of characteristics insofar as they remain a quintessential Belgian/French farmhouse style of beer that didn't have to conform to the Reinheitsgebot (The so-called German Beer Purity Law).  But the Americans drive the trends today much as some solid Belgian examples remain defining of the framework.

Saisons are a highly carbonated and lightly spicy form of Belgian/French pale ale that was brewed in the cooler months for storage and to be served to farm workers in the summer, with a traditionally low ABV (3-ish%), a finely dry quenching if mild bitterness, spicy yeasty phenols, and the crisp sort of sharp carbonation that helps quench one's thirst from a day in the fields.  There was great variance in the style and that variance remains today with an evolution towards higher ABVs (6-7%) generally (and even an Imperial Saison style), alongside some spicier representatives and some brewed with wild yeast (Brettanomyces) as they were historically or with barrel-aged variants.

By nature, these are seasonal ales, and some great examples are seasonally imported by the LCBO or brewed seasonally by finer brewers (such as Quebec's Brasserie Dunham who offers many seasonal Saison delights!).  Several strong examples, however, are thankfully available year-round in both Quebec and Ontario, and are exemplary ones to try for a solid first-take or pleasant re-visitation.

Ontario

Ommegang's Hennepin Farmhouse Saison (7.7% ABV) comes in $12.95 4-packs on regular list at the LCBO.  For me, personally, this is the quintessential saison, doing nothing immensely uniquely, but everything well.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel when your saison offers a lightly fruity nose with some earthy yeast present, and tastes of a lightly sour funk with some peppery spice and bold carbonation.  Just everything I want when I desire a saison!

I am torn mentioning Goose Island's Sofie insofar as Goose Island is now owned by AB-InBev (aka. Budweiser and then some), one of the big three macro brewers.  However, they have allowed this Chicago based brewery to continue doing what they do best and, by now qualifying as domestic under ridiculous import laws since the macro takeover, it is regular list at the LCBO for $9.95 for 765 ml of this delightful 6.5% ABV saison.  Sofie is a blend of 80% the base beer coupled with 20% of the same base beer aged in wine barrels with citrus rind and the result is a marvel!  I have been quoted many times as saying, "This is a beer to convert wine drinkers," and I have done so with it.  Its complexity is magnificent with some pepper, citrus, and vanilla qualities alongside just a teasing hint of sour grape mustiness that intrigues and entices.  One of my favourite beers on the planet and it will evolve in the bottle (upright in a cool dark place) for up to 5 years.  Buy it, try it, support its continued availability... and then support your local microbrewery to keep the experimental, local scene (from which beers like Sofie arose) alive.

Quebec

Charlevoix's Dominus Vobiscum Saison (6% ABV) is, like everything brewed by Charlevoix, a pleasant treat with a signature yeast profile.  This excellent Quebec brewery has a line (of their Quad, "Hibernus," Saison, and delightful Belgian IPA, "Lupulus") that comes in gorgeous, wine-like 750ml bottles, with the saison retailing at better Quebec beer stores for around $10 plus tax and deposit.  Lemon and rind notes are more prevalent than spice, with a nice yeasty earthiness and crisp effervescence.  A classic example - like much from this brewery - that does everything well in a standard way without any wheel reinvention.

Le Trou du Diable's Saison du Tracteur (7% ABV) is another fairly representative example, where the spicy yeast is complemented by a drier earthy hoppiness than in most of the widely available options.  Though perhaps my least favourite on this list, that says little as this is still a fantastic beer (since the list is so strong!) and is perhaps the most affordable (or comparable to the Hennepin) making for a regular treat to stock in the fridge.  This standard delight comes in 341ml or 750ml bottles at finer Quebec deps and beer stores for a reasonably low price point.

Goose Island's Sofie (see Ontario above) is now also available in Quebec - so far exclusively at IGAs - but comes with the same caveat: a must buy and a must move on.  Glad its here, but not as glad as I am for Quebec's local micro marvels (such as Dieu du Ciel, Hopfenstark, Dunham, Charlevoix, Les Trois Mousquetaires, Le Trou du Diable, Le Castor, Benelux, etc).

'Til next we drink again... cheers!

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