Editor’s note: This post was updated on June 2, 2021.
In summer, you can work up a Herculean thirst just strolling down a blazing street or sunbathing by the pool. Now imagine you’re a circa-1850 Belgian farmhand harvesting crops in the sweltering heat. Back then water wasn’t always potable. Since alcohol kills potentially harmful microbes, the smart hydrator was beer—specifically, refreshing saisons (French for “seasons”), rustic ales high in refreshment, low in stylistic guidelines.
In the 19th century, beer was made with readily available ingredients: a handful of hops and a scoop of grains, fermented by the yeast hanging out here, there, and everywhere in the air. Farmers created these agrarian ales with artistic license, typically when the weather cooled and chilly temperatures staved off unwanted microbe growth. Often aged until summer, the finished suds were earthy, dry, and sometimes agreeably funky thanks to stints fermenting in the barn.
Today’s brewers are experimenting wildly with the basic style, seemingly with a singular goal: to produce saisons as invigorating as they are uniquely complex. Some are exceedingly low in alcohol, exemplified by Allagash Brewing’s Little Grove 3.8 percent ABV sparkling session ales. Others are high on rye and strength—The Bruery Saison Rue clocks in at 8.5 percent ABV—or infused with fungus-infected grape juice, as is the case with Dogfish Head Craft Brewed Ales Noble Rot. In Oregon, Logsdon Farmhouse Ales flavors its Peche ’n Brett saison with peaches and wild Brettanomyces yeast, while vegetables star in Florida’s Cigar City Brewing Cucumber Saison.
So while the saison is hard to define—it’s no one thing—you can always count on the inspired style to quench your thirst when the mercury rises.
Saisons snuggle up to delicate salads, meet heat-seeking Thai curries head-on, and cut through creamy, rich cheeses. A moderate-strength variety, effervescent as all get out, is perfect with a buttery bloomy rind—try a wedge of Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Hudson Valley Camembert or Sweet Grass Dairy Green Hill, the gooey sheep’s milk Brebirousse d’Argental, or a milky brie-style such as Alemar Cheese Company Blue Earth. If you dig fruity, pungent cheeses in the Taleggio vein, secure a saison seasoned with Brettanomyces yeast—the funky foodstuffs find a most delicious middle ground.
Four to Pour
Goose Island Beer Company Sofie
In addition to aging a portion of each batch in wine barrels with orange peel, Goose Island brewers dose food-friendly Sofie with Brett yeast. As the beer ages, citrus fades, and funk comes out to play.
Stillwater Artisanal Ales Cellar Door
Globetrotting brewer Brian Strumke fortifies this hazy and distinctive farmhouse ale with plenty of German wheat and sage, which are complemented by herbal Sterling and tropical Citra hops.
Oxbow Brewing Co. Saisontino
This brewery in rural Maine is known for its farmhouse ales, including this dry-hopped summer refresher, brewed in collaboration with Birrificcio Italiano.
Made with well water and proprietary yeast, this brisk saison is lively and peppery, dry and citrusy, elegantly sparkling, and supremely refreshing. No wonder it’s consider the style’s undisputed standard.
Feature Photo Credit: Mettus | Shutterstock