The saison beer style originated in farmhouse breweries along the border of France and Belgium's Wallonian region. The rustic ales were part of the compensation offered to the seasonal workers or "saisoniers" who would bring in the region's harvest. Since beer was often safer to drink than water, the brewing of saison was an integral part of the local economy. Each farm would brew the beer during the slow winter months and then store it for use over the course of the summer. Larger farms would have their own breweries and smaller breweries would often utilize a community brewery. The grain from leftover from each batch would make ideal feed for livestock, furthering the beer's utility.
Modern saisons are brewed year round and they're generally a bit stronger than their historical progenitors, but the emphasis remains on light and refreshing beers with rustic notes such as pepper, clove and often a gentle tartness. The beers we chose here represent the best of what we've found in the saison style. They range from classic examples by century old farm breweries in Wallonia to wild and aggressive interpretations by upstart American breweries experimenting with new hop varieties, barrel aging, and wild yeasts. Collectively they're the best saisons on earth.
Brasserie De Blaugies' Saison D'Epeautre
While the farmhouse brewing tradition runs deep in Belgium's Wallonia, the great majority of the farmhouse breweries in the region have been shut down for one reason or another. Luckily new blood has helped reinvigorated the region's brewing traditions. Schoolteachers Marie-Noelle Pourtois and husband Pierre-Alex Carlier launched Brasserie De Blaugies in their garage in 1987. A son has since joined the operation and they've been brewing world-class beers ever since. Our favorite is Saison D'Epeautre or "spelt saison."
Why spelt? Saison yeasts are among the most attenuative yeasts in the beer world, meaning that they eat more of the beers sugars, produces more alcohol and leave less body in the beer. To keep the beer from being too light saison producers often incorporate ingredients with higher protein levels like wheat, rye, oats or in the case of Saison D'Epeautre, spelt. The spelt keeps the body from being too lean and also imparts a rustic grainy flavor that compliments the lemon, orange and clove notes that result from the beer's fermentation.
Saison D'Epeautre is a touch fruitier than the iconic saisons produced by Brasserie Dupont, but the smaller operations beer is every bit as sophisticated. When we first encountered the beer in Belgium the label bore the illustration of a rotund brewer leaning on a sack of grain with a windmill and church in the distance. The bottle we found in the US had a different label featuring a photo of a grain field. We've been informed that the brewery will soon be switching back to the windmill label pictured here, but don't let that deter you from buying either bottle.