No modern beer style is as far removed from its historical basis than the saison. While India Pale Ales were never over-hopped simply to withstand the long voyage to India—that’s pure apocrypha—saisons were indeed once strictly seasonal farmhouse beers. Saison means “season” in French and these pale ales were once made in the French-speaking farmlands of Wallonia, Belgium. They were slightly funky, imminently drinkable beers brewed in open-air barns during the colder months and drunk in the hot summer months as an in-the-fields refresher for the farm-working saisonniers.
Today, however, the saison has mostly moved away from being brewed in farmhouses if not Wallonia altogether. It has likewise lost those low-ABV, thirst-quenching qualities in favor of characteristics more beloved by the modern American beer consumer: boozy, barrel-aged and often packed with adjuncts.
American saisons are now being brewed in warehouses, office parks, urban brewpubs and even an occasional farmhouse or two (though one possibly climate-controlled). And, while Saison Dupont still exists as the Belgian archetype for the style—cloudy, fizzy, slightly funky—American variants have tended to become way more sour and acidic. This is usually owing to their so-called “mixed” fermentation, meaning they employ both regular brewer’s yeast and wild yeast and bacteria. In some cases it has become impossible to differentiate today’s “saisons” from “wild ales.” In fact, the very definition of the modern saison is that it’s incredibly hard to define.
With last month’s release of his Saison Americaine, the founder of Texas’s Jester King, Jeffrey Stuffing, summed it up best: “[T]he very lack of a clear definition has become somewhat synonymous with the style. For us at Jester King, saison means beer that is… inextricably tied to the water, agriculture and microflora of a place, the seasonal and environmental fluctuations of time, and the desires, palates and eccentricities of people.”
That sounds philosophically accurate, but taste-wise, saisons mostly remain a know-it-when-you-sip-it sort of style. They must be yeast-driven beers, sure, but also slightly funky and acidic, too. They should also be light and drinkable even if the standard ABV continues creeping upward. Personally, I feel saison-like qualities can still be maintained when aged in a neutral oak barrel, but once placed in a wine barrel they became something altogether different. Ditto with adding fruit to the fray. This distinction meant that, in our tasting, we skipped over some real whales of the style from Side Project, Sante Adairius and Hill Farmstead. We’ll save those “saisons” for another time.
For this tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief Talia Baiocchi; Senior Editor, Lizzie Munro; Assistant Editor, Chloe Frechette; and Social Media Editor, Allison Hamlin. We tasted 25 American saisons from breweries on the east coast, west coast and middle America; from urban, suburban and countryside breweries; and from gypsy brewing upstarts and massive microbreweries that have been around for decades. While earlier examples of the style tended to be more sweet and flabby, recent standouts have become drier, more acidic and a ton more pleasurable to drink.