A few days before last month’s DC Beer Week, Barrett Lauer, head brewer at District Chophouse & Brewery, poured seven beers into one metal tank. He had brewed only one of them, which, he says, was tart and fruity. An ale from 3 Stars Brewing was perfumed with lime and basil, and Chocolate City Beer’s contribution had a peppery bite. The other four beers, also from local breweries, filled in the spectrum with varying degrees of sweetness, yeastiness, fruitiness and spice.
All seven beers were saisons, a once-obscure variety of Belgian farmhouse ale. Served as a single blend, they were drinkable evidence of the style’s unfettered diversity and the farmhouse frenzy that has spread throughout America, turning the land of the free into the home of the saison.
“Saison is an up-and-coming, very hot style that is very refreshing,” Lauer says, adding that it is accessible for craft-beer neophytes yet elegant enough to please aficionados. “It isn’t extremely aggressive and it has a lot of soft nuances that are appealing at this time of year.”
Remarkably, the style once teetered on the brink of extinction, almost dying out in its native Wallonia, Belgium’s southern, Francophone half.
According to brewer and author Phil Markowski, farmers probably made saisons for centuries with whatever was available: barley, wheat, rye and spelt, as well as hops, herbs and spices. They were allegedly intended as a drink for the “saisonniers,” migrants who helped with the harvest. By the 1980s, though, saisons were perpetuated by only a few small breweries. One of them, Brasserie Dupont, was about to discontinue its example of the style, which made up only 2 percent of its total production.
Fate was kind to the saison. Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield, owners of Vanberg & Dewulf, the first U.S. importer to specialize in Belgian beers, were contacted in the mid 1980s by their friend Michael Jackson, the great beer writer who died in 2007.
“Michael said, ‘Don, there’s a great little brewery called Dupont,’ ” Littlefield recalls. “ ‘They make a saison, an endangered style. You should go try it.’ ”
Saison Dupont wasn’t an immediate hit in the United States, where drinkers were more familiar with sweeter Belgian abbey ales. Praise from brewing icons such as Garrett Oliver and Sam Calagione, however, as well as good media coverage, helped turn it into a sensation. The beer would directly or indirectly inspire breweries large and small, including giants such as Kansas City’s Boulevard Brewing and the husband-and-wife “gypsy brewing” venture Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project of Massachusetts.
Saison Dupont’s intrinsic attributes might have been its most important advantage: a dry, drinkable, balanced mixture of fruit and spice with a floral hop aroma. Littlefield points out that the style is great on its own or with food, particularly spicy or fatty dishes.
Plus, as Markowski notes in an entry in the Oxford Companion to Beer, “Many American craft brewers embody the creative ‘no-rules’ approach that has long defined saison.” The saison, like a jazz standard riffed on by thousands of beboppers, has been an experimental form since the earliest Belgian farmers first concocted it from whatever they grew.
“That’s one of the nicest things about saison as a style. It’s so open to diversity and change and interpretation,” says Dave Coleman, president of the District’s 3 Stars Brewing, which has dabbled in four saisons and intends to brew one of them, the peppercorn-laced Urban Farmhouse, year-round.
Or as Brandon Skall, president of DC Brau, puts it, “A saison has so many different characteristics. You can choose the ones you want to highlight.” DC Brau’s new Middle Name: Danger saison, for example — a collaboration with Baltimore’s Stillwater Artisanal Ales — is more about American hops than yeast or spice, showcasing nontraditional tropical fruit aromas.
One way to taste contrasting approaches: Compare Saison Dupont with beers from Stillwater. (Consistently in stock in the Washington area, Stillwater is like Rene Magritte to Dupont’s Michelangelo — a playful reinterpreter, not an old master.) Saison Dupont smells earthy, with notes of clove, apple and hay, and the bone-dry beer is restrained and yeasty. Stillwater’s Cellar Door is lemony and scented with sage, an ideal beer to pair with food. Its Existent, a chestnut-colored “dark saison,” tastes like coffee, cola and roasted barley.
Three Stars Brewing and DC Brau intend to put out more saisons, as does Bluejacket, the forthcoming D.C. brewery from Neighborhood Restaurant Group whose recently released Sidewalk Saison was brewed with a foraged herb called violet wood sorrel.
And Saison Dupont is always available: The king of saisons is now distributed in some 40 states and U.S. territories, plus a dozen other countries. This March, Littlefield visited Brasserie Dupont’s head brewer, Olivier DeDeycker, and marveled at how a style that was nearly extinct just a couple decades ago is now available in more than 800 iterations. “We were laughing,” she says. “How far things have come.”
Fromson, a freelance writer, lives in Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @dfroms.