Head Brewer Niko Tonks on Saisons.
Saison is a beer style that we love very much, yet is very much misunderstood. It’s been put forth as the “next big thing” in craft beer many times, and never quite gotten over the hump. In our opinion, this is due, at least in part, to the fact that it is tough to nail down.
As beer drinkers, we’re used to beers we can easily classify. Sure, everybody and their brother (including us) likes to mess with “IPA,” but those style descriptions tend towards the self-explanatory: Black IPA (it’s an IPA, but it’s dark), Session IPA (it’s an IPA, but you can drink a few), Hazy IPA (let’s not go there), etc, etc. The word “Saison” is often more problematic – because it has been appended to so many different things over the years, it has been rendered nearly meaningless.
We make no claims to historical accuracy in Saison brewing, fraught as any modern “farmhouse” claims may be. We do, however, recognize that, as Yvan de Baets of Brasserie de le Senne has said (as quoted in Farmhouse Ales, by Phil Markowski):
“A saison must, therefore, be low in alcohol … around 4.5 to 6.5%. It must be highly attenuated … and dry. It must also be either sour or very bitter (with a bitterness obtained by the use of a massive amount of hops low in alpha acid). It shouldn’t, in any case, be smooth. If spices are used, it must be with the utmost moderation. A saison is not by any means a spice soup.”
He goes on to state that Saisons should, properly, be fermented by a mix of organisms, not simply saccharomyces of a single variety. While that isn’t always possible for us, his dichotomy of “bitter” or “sour” is a meaningful one that we have taken to heart.
So. Let’s do our best, if not to clarify than at least to stake a claim: Saison is not a “kitchen sink” beer. It shouldn’t have 35 ingredients. It is a beer for drinking, and as such shouldn’t be 9% ABV. Simplicity should be at its core. We view our Saison grain bills much the same way we view our lager beers – if an ingredient isn’t serving a vital purpose, it’s probably best to leave it out altogether.
How, then, to put this into practice? We have chosen two routes. First, Du Pounde, our year-round “clean” Saison. Fermented without temperature control, brewed with wheat, Vienna, and Pilsner malts, and heavily hopped with Centennial. This beer brings elements of classic Saison expression, American hop character, and continental sensibilities into one simple, easy to parse package. It’s hoppy enough for hopheads, but light and estery enough for those who enjoy fruity wheat beers. Best consumed fresh, with yeast still in suspension, Du Pounde is an everyday beer that we treasure.
Second, we have been working on a mixed culture Saison that embraces, as de Baets says, the “small ‘wild’ side (of saison), rustic, indefinable, far from the clean aspect of certain engineered beers of today.” Beginning July 15 at our Mixed Culture festival in St. Paul, we are proud to present, in collaboration with Oakhold Farmhouse Brewery, “Barrel Fermented Du Pounde” (or BFD# as we have been calling it), a blend of our favorite mature pale sour barrels from the cellar. This beer is the culmination of many brew days, lots of barrel samples, and copious amounts of microbes. It utilizes a similar base recipe to Du Pounde, and spends anywhere from 4-8 months in oak. Funky, sour, oaky, and complex, BFD# is our attempt to capture that second trajectory of what Saison can be.
We are excited to continue down these two paths, and to better understand what Saison means, in the here and now of craft brewing. Hopefully, you’ll join us.
Fair State Saisons
Cans: Du Pounde
Bottles: Saison Drei, Barrel-Fermented Du Pounde (July 22)
On draft: Du Pounde, Points North, Dakota Skipper (July 13)
On draft at Mixed Culture 2017 (July 15):
- Barrel-Fermented Du Pounde
- Passionfruit Barrel-Fermented Du Pounde
- Blueberry Barrel-Fermented Du Pounde