Many think that if Asheville had an official beer, it would be an IPA. So when the Asheville Brewers Alliance chose a style to brew together for Asheville Beer Week, many thought an IPA was a given. Instead, ABA members brewed a Belgian-style beer known as a saison.
What is a saison? The answer is not as simple as you might think. While beers are categorized into styles, a saison is pretty flexible. One brewer may create a saison that’s just 4 percent ABV with a spicy yeast character while another makes a 7 percent beer with handfuls of grapefruit zest and dry hops.
The considerable variation comes from this history of the beer. The roots of saison go back to an earlier era, a time when non-alcoholic water could be dangerous and manual farm labor was a major source of employment. In the Belgian countryside, farmers would use the downtime of winter to brew beer for the spring and summer laborers.
This made sense: It’s easier to find time to make beer when there’s less work around the farm, and beer often turns out better when it ferments at a moderate temperature. Sometimes farms would continue to produce beer into warmer weather, blending batches together — even throwing fruits, spices and other beers with some sour acidity into the mix. So perhaps it’s no surprise that saison is quickly growing in popularity here in America, where brewers are known for their creativity and for pushing the boundaries of unusual ingredients in beer.
In May, the New York Times called saison “the perfect summer beer,” and they have a good point. Despite the many variations, a saison is typically light and dry. There is often some “fruitiness” from the yeast, reminding the drinker of lemons or juicy oranges. And it’s almost always strongly effervescent, with a dry finish. It can even be moderately tart — which in the heat of summer is pretty refreshing.
Locally, we now have plenty of options for finding saison. Wicked Weed has brewed more saisons than any other brewery, and shows no sign of stopping. The brewers plan to continually keep the tap lines flowing with at least two, if not more, saisons on any given day, ranging from classic examples of the style to fruit-forward versions featuring ingredients like passionfruit.
Burial Beer, which opened its doors just weeks ago, has two farmhouse beers in its rotation. Billhook is crisp and fruity. It’s made with tropical New Zealand hops and kiwi fruit, which add a subtle tartness to the finish. Pitchfork is also a refreshing beer, but it’s a little richer with an amber color and some clove and raisin notes.
Wedge has brewed its Super Saison for years. It has changed over time, as they now use a wild yeast, Brettanomyces, in addition to the orange and coriander.
While their south brewhouse is not yet up and running, Thirsty Monk downtown is also a good bet when it comes to finding saisons. They recently had Stillwater’s Stateside Saison and New Belgium’s Peach Porch Lounger on tap downstairs. And Barley’s Taproom often carries La Sexxxy Saison from Catawba Valley.