Burial Beer Co. hosted its third annual Sharpen the Blades Saison Fest on Saturday, April 30, at the brewery’s South Slope brewhouse and tasting room. A celebration of saisons brewed in North Carolina, Sharpen the Blades is one of two festivals hosted by the brewery each year and provides a stylistic counterpoint to Burnpile, the brewery’s fall harvest festival. While the breweries attending Burnpile tend to bring bigger, maltier offerings in preparation for the impending cold, Sharpen the Blades focuses on beers brewed in the tradition of dry, lower-alcohol spontaneously fermented Belgian ales intended to quench a farmer’s thirst after a hard day in the fields.
Saison, translating to “season,” is a style that dates back centuries in the predominantly French-speaking region of southern Belgium known as Wallonia, and was brewed over the winter months to be served to seasonal farm workers in the summer. “We are drawn to the historical nature of the style, connecting us back to the notion of harvest and the cyclical nature of life that our brewery is based on,” says Burial co-owner Jess Reiser. “Saisons are also a style that we feel is the perfect canvas for creativity with yeast strains, adjuncts and hops to constantly push the boundaries of traditional styles.”
Historically, saison was a broad stylistic category, with individual farms each developing their own unique variation on the beer. This diversity was on display at the April 30 event as over 40 North Carolina breweries showcased their distinctive interpretations of saison. While the style typically indicates a low-gravity, highly attenuated pale ale emphasizing the fruity and spicy esters of wild Belgian yeast strains, modern American saisons cover a wide range of gravities and flavor profiles.
According to Reiser, the variety and quality of American saisons has increased greatly in recent years, as more breweries and drinkers have gravitated to the accessibility of the style. “I see a lot of experimentation with a range of interpretations — some brewers are drawn to the traditional aspects of the saison, highlighting the yeast and a low ABV while others are trying a variety of adjuncts with a wide range of ABVs,” she say. “At Burial we strive to keep saisons 6 percent and under and use adjuncts that complement the yeast strain which is the backbone of this style.”
Burial has seen Sharpen the Blades grow by approximately five participating breweries each year since its inception as more brewers begin to experiment with the style, with the festival drawing many breweries that are typically not distributed in Asheville. This year’s Sharpen the Blades saw several logistical improvements over last year’s event, including additional pouring stations and an opportunity for early admission following the release of Terrestrial Paradise Brett Farmhouse Ale, Burial’s most recent bottled offering.
According to Reiser, Burial hopes to hold next year’s Sharpen the Blades at the brewery’s Biltmore Village Forestry Camp expansion facility, which is currently under renovation. The additional space at the Biltmore location will allow for the saison festival to grow even further, with the possibility of incorporating breweries from beyond the borders of North Carolina in coming years.
In addition to allowing for the further expansion of Burial’s already well-attended events, the Biltmore facility will free up space in the South Slope brewhouse for exciting new developments in the brewery’s wild and sour ale programs. Reiser teased some details of what the future holds for the Burial’s South Slope location, which is likely to be dedicated to wild-fermentation once construction on the Forestry Camp production facility is completed.
“We recently purchased foudres which will be filled this week with two base beers to begin our side project of wild and sour ales. Both vessels will employ the solara method, which dates back to the 17th century in brewing, to deploy a house flora,” she explains. “This method essentially means that part of the old beer is used to inoculate the new beer. Over time, that means that parts of every generation make it into the next beer.”
These foudres (large, open-topped oak fermentation vessels) are intended for longterm aging of spontaneously fermented ales, so it is likely to be some time before these beers are available to consumers. That said, it is a safe bet that you can look forward to enjoying a saison fermented in these foudres at next year’s Sharpen the Blades.