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.
Hill Farmstead's Arthur
When we told Shaun Hill, the founder of Hill Farmstead Brewery, that we would like to evaluate his beer Arthur for consideration in a feature on the world's best saisons he asked us why we were only considering one of his beers for the honor. " I think that we make several that would quality as the best on the planet," he told us. His brewing backs his bluster. We ended up tasting three of his saisons and all were stunners. We're not Hill Farmstead's first admirers. In 2011 they were named best new brewery by the beer rating website "Rate Beer." By 2013 the same site had named them "The Best Brewery in the World."
Hill's family's roots in Greensboro trace back to the 1780s and family heritage informs nearly everything the brewery does from the chalice logo that was adapted from a sign that once hung in a great-great-great grandfather's tavern to the year-round "Ancestral Series" of beers. The label on Arthur, named in honor of a great uncle, explains, "This is the ale that I dream to have shared with Arthur."
We also loved Vera Mae and Florence and either could have easily found their way onto our list, but Arthur is the one that absolutely floored us. It is a golden saison with a huge rocky head and a nose that recalls lemon peel, herbal tea, and a light farmhouse funk. It's intensely bright and dry. Above all, it's balanced and extremely well-structured - the best saison we've ever tasted.
Credit: Hill Farmstead Brewery / Bob M. Montgomery Images