Last month I wrote an article about breaking away from the craft beer hype culture, the subculture that worships a few select breweries and ignores the rest, even many that make amazing beer. I focused most of the article on the fetish breweries, asking people caught in the hype cycles to try branching out and trying different places. In the article I also touched on the potential threat of craft beer becoming a style mono-culture, where every brewery focuses on hazy IPAs and pastry stouts because those are the only styles that sell at any volume. I didn’t delve much further into this part of the argument but I wish had, especially after Night Shift brewer Isaac Boucher sent the following tweet:
This blew my mind. Night Shift usually makes a few different saisons this time of year including their stellar seasonal Matisse, a former silver medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival. After reading this news I launched into a mini-rant about beer styles on twitter and it led to a good discussion. I understand why breweries make style-related decisions based on sales, these are businesses and they have bills to pay. I also think the threat of style mono-culture is overblown, many people who start as IPA-only drinkers eventually get bored of hop-bombs and start to branch out. Brian from Bog Iron made a bunch of similarly good points, highlighted by these tweets:
I hope he is right, and in a couple years we have see brewers having success with a whole variety of styles as more beer drinkers get bored of hop bombs and start trying new things. The recent boom in craft lager is certainly encouraging. The one set of styles I worry about are the Belgian beers, saisons along with abbey styles like dubbel, tripel and quadrupel. It seems like a small subset of beer geeks worship these styles but the larger population of craft beer drinkers mostly ignore them. In a way I understand. When I first started drinking better beer I wasn’t a fan of Belgian styles, the estery yeast strains were just too foreign to my palate. Then I read an article on the old Boston.com 99 Bottles blog praising an amazing new local saison called Pretty Things Jack D’Or. The article convinced me to give the beer a try and I was blown away. My love of Belgian style beers, and my appreciation for the power of quality beer writing, began that day, starting a path that eventually led to Hoppy Boston.
In recent years I’ve noticed breweries shying away from the saison style, Night Shift is not the first. Trillium opened their brewery with a delicious flagship saison, but they have completely reworked the beer into a wild ale and their only regular saisons are loaded with hops (I am OK with hoppy saisons, but it is a much different style). Mystic spent years perfecting their Belgian beers, their seasonal saisons and Vinland series were some of my favorites, but gained buzz when their started making hazy IPAs. Many other breweries have launched with a focus on Belgian styles and quickly branched out to reach a wider market, in many cases leaving the Belgian beers completely behind.
It is really too bad because saisons are awesome, especially as the weather starts to warm up. In a well crafted saison the expressive yeast adds a ton of flavor and complexity, ranging from fruity to spicy to barnyard/funky. Outside of the yeast there is a ton of variation in the style, one of the reasons I think so many brewers love saisons. I’ve seen a multitude of combinations of malts and hops in American saisons, and I love the interplay between the fruity Belgian yeast strains and some of the newer and popular American hop varieties. With all of the different variations I am sure every beer drinker can find versions of the saison style that they enjoy.
So this is my plea to beer geeks everywhere, take a little time away from the haze bombs this spring and sip some refreshing, complex and delicious saisons. These beers prove that you don’t need loads of hops to pack big flavors and they are perfect for the spring, summer and even the fall. If you are a long-time fan of Belgian beers go and grab a few old favorites. If you are new to the style and aren’t sure where to start here are a few of my favorite local saisons, all of which should be pretty easy to find:
- Allagash Saison: The masters of Belgian beer styles have a super approachable and delicious take on the rustic style.
- Cambridge Brewing Company Working Class Hero: The addition of American hops and citrus peel perfectly complement the yeast strain here, a stellar BBQ beer.
- Mystic Table Beer: Enjoy this sessionable version of the style with dinner, it will pair well with whatever you are cooking.
- Oxbow Farmhouse Pale Ale: Oxbow is another great Belgian style brewery, and their flagship Farmhouse Pale Ale is delicious and easy drinking.
- Idle Hands Prome: A dry hopped farmhouse ale that expertly melds the expressive yeast with the fruity New World hops.
Coincidentally, this Saturday is saison day, and Allagash is hosting events at different breweries across the country. Another great reason to drink some saison this weekend! With that I will throw it to my readers. What versions of the saison style do you love? What do you look for in a great version of the style?