When the weather turns hot, most drinkers reach for a light lager, Kolsch, sessionable pale ale or something in the wheat beer family. But there’s another style that has been brewed for centuries specifically to quench summertime thirst – the saison, or farmhouse ale.
Saison beers originally were brewed by Belgian farmers to serve to their seasonal workers. These low-alcohol brews (as low as 3 percent ABV) were fermented in the cooler during slower months and uncorked when these saisonniers arrived at the fields in the heat of summer.
This provided safe hydration and welcome refreshment in the years before modern sanitation.
As homemade products, no two saisons were alike. Until the twentieth century, a saison was simply a rustic and unfiltered concoction brewed from whatever grains were available, refermented in bottles and cellared at home.
The saison style was revived in the 1950s after nearly going extinct.
While traditional saisons featured a wide range of tastes and flavors, the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), arbiter of beer styles, has established clear parameters for the modern saison.
Today’s farmhouse ales often are mildly sweet but finish dry and appear hazy and yeasty with color ranging from pale amber to golden in color. Typical flavor notes include spicy pepper, coriander, ginger, lemon and orange peel. Despite this complexity, saisons remain highly drinkable and easy to pair with light summertime fare.
The quintessential farmhouse ale is Saison Dupont, brewed in Belgium since 1950, which usually can be found with a bit of effort. But there also are outstanding saisons available practically everywhere.
Brooklyn Brewery’s Sorachi Ace uses the style as a canvas to feature the unique lemony qualities of a Japanese hop strain, and the fabled Hill Farmstead Brewery has produced literally dozens of versions which are, as usual, difficult to track down outside of northeastern Vermont.
Perhaps the most widely-appreciated American saison is Hennepin, which has been a flagship beer for Brewery Ommegang for nearly two decades. But at nearly 8 percent alcohol by volume, it’s a bit boozy to be a thirst quencher.
To remedy this rather serious problem, Ommegang recently released a “session saison” called Short Sleeve, hitting the major notes of the style while dialing down the alcohol.
So the next time you’re laboring all day in the blazing sun, or just mowing the lawn, remember you don’t have to reach for the fizzy yellow stuff.
This week’s recommendation: Short Sleeve Saison, Brewery Ommegang. 4.5 percent ABV. Cooperstown, N.Y.
— Jon Hill is a writer, historian and craft beer enthusiast from the village of Poland, N.Y.