’Tis the Saison
The relentless snow and cold of this past winter seemed to demand all my energy. I insulated myself with blankets and drank imperial stouts (like The Mountain, a rich and bold offering from Banded Horn) and bourbon-barrel-aged beers (primarily Allagash Curieux), hoping their depth, sweetness and alcohol content would provide a warmth the season refused to give.
In March, I got so desperate for greenery and sunshine that I switched to pursuing anything with hops. I clung to the citrus, pine, mango and pineapple notes in the aromas of hop-heavy brews, the hint of freshly cut grass in their tastes. Calcutta Cutter, from Rising Tide, became my go-to for as long as I could get it.
Now that we’ve passed the equinox it seems more certain that yes, there will be more seasons this year. In their lust for summer, many beer lovers are scooping up the summertime seasonal releases that have already begun to appear on store shelves. But I’d argue that after a winter like this last one, we should stop and savor the delights of spring beer.
There are beers released for every season, but relatively few styles are specifically characterized for enjoyment in the spring. The style that most often comes to mind for this time of transition is both subtle and complex: the saison.
Saisons originated in rural areas of Belgium. Before modern methods of refrigeration were available, Belgian farmers would brew beer over the winter and store it for the warmer months, when les saisonniers (seasonal workers) would return to toil in the fields. These beers are also sometimes referred to as “farmhouse” ales for the same reason.
Originally, saison wasn’t a style; it was a practice, and could refer to any beer brewed to quench the field workers’ thirst. As a consequence of this, modern saisons can vary greatly in taste and can be difficult to categorize. Most saisons are pale and dry, and often have fruity or spicy notes as a result of the yeast used to brew them. They tend to convey a delicate and intricate interplay of flavors. If beer were food, saisons would be akin to artfully made sushi, whereas a strong IPA could be compared to a plate of hot buffalo wings.
Once considered a rare beer style, saisons have gained a steadily growing following, and Maine is no exception. One of my current favorites is the spring entry into Rising Tide’s Entrepôt series, Printemps. Printemps (“Springtime,” in French) has an almost peach-like taste to it, a fresh and fruity note for a beer crafted to celebrate winter’s end. By contrast, Oxbow’s flagship Farmhouse Pale Ale has almost peppery bites of spiciness that lay atop a lightly citrus-accented base.
Saisons like these can help you to retrain your taste buds after swamping them for months with malty, high-test beers. The progression of aromas and tastes in a saison can be like a journey, from sharp dryness into a burst of fruitiness to a clean finish, intertwined with the complexity of additional flavors tying everything together.
Pour a saison into a glass, cup your hands around the side, and inhale its aroma fully and purposefully. Then close your eyes and take another breath, followed by a few small sips. Take a moment to fully explore each sip while it’s on your tongue and after you swallow it, just as you might pause to listen to a songbird or feel a warm breeze on your skin.
Then get back to work — that field isn’t going to hoe itself.