Winter-brewed saisons come in all shapes and sizes
The evening air was thick and sticky, and the deck sitters, eager to enjoy the sun, seemed to be pushing the issue.
Fortunately, Mt. Lebanon's Hitchhiker Brewing had a saison on tap.
“I think on a hot and muggy day, something light and refreshing, peppery,” said Andy Kwiatkowski, Hitchhiker's head brewer.
He let the sentence hang in the air, the description enough to explain why Hitchhiker's Soles Farmhouse Saison had become one of its most popular beers.
In the city's damp summer heat, what else could you want besides a crisp, light, fruity thirst quencher? Some variation of a saison should be in every poolside cooler, outdoor mini-fridge or bucket of ice on this July Fourth holiday.
Though the style originated in Belgium, saison has been embraced in America, where beer style guidelines become blurry and brewers are free to experiment with wild yeast, fruit additions, spices, herbs and all kinds of botanicals.
The aroma often has a lemony tartness and funkiness that many describe — favorably — as “horse blanket.” Hey, don't judge. Barnyard flavors are perfectly appropriate, as saisons were created by and for farmhands in the Belgian countryside, who brewed beer during the cooler season to slake their thirst during the hot summer months.
Alcohol levels of modern interpretations range from 3 percent to double digits. Typically straw-colored and light-bodied, darker and more robust winter saisons exist.
Belgian yeast and carefully chosen hops lend all kinds of banana, peach, pear and tart citrus aromas, as well as peppery spice. The beer should be fruity and dry, but otherwise saison is something of a crapshoot. It's a tough style to pin down but easy to like.
With Soles, Hitchhiker paid homage to Belgian tradition. It is low-alcohol and bone-dry, with soft malt character that includes flaked wheat. The most recent version had no spice additions, letting the funky Belgian yeast do the talking. It is the kind of beer that old-world farmhands likely consumed.
“Saison was a table beer for farm workers in Wallonia,” Kwiatkowski said. “This is a harken back to how the style originally started.”
Not every brewer feels compelled to nod toward tradition. At Roundabout Brewery in Lawrenceville, Steve Sloan has a bigger, hoppier version he calls Mosaic Saison. At 6.8 percent alcohol, it has roughly twice the punch of Soles. It is much more hop forward than many saisons, featuring the tropical melon aromas of New Zealand hops.
Sloan felt no need to adhere to guidelines.
“I don't know that I have any one approach,” Sloan said. “The style is so broad.”
Sloan said he also enjoyed the Provision saison brewed by Hop Farm Brewing Co. down the road from him on Butler Street.
Hop Farm owner Matt Gouwens said he opted for tradition, keeping Provision at an easy 4.2 percent alcohol and adding no spice. The beer features banana and clove aromas, all derived from the Belgian yeast.
“I like to make things traditionally,” Gouwens said. “Especially saisons.”
Brewers can go overboard with spices and adjuncts like honey and sugar. Coriander, pepper and orange peel are popular. Saison Du Buff, which originated as a collaboration between Stone Brewing, Dogfish Head and Pennsylvania's Victory Brewery, has parsley, sage, rosemary and ... yes, you can guess the final herb.
Stone recently put out a saison of its own with lemon zest, lemon thyme and lavender. And there are tons of other variations that, while worth tasting, we just don't have space to discuss here.
Consider it a challenge — perhaps your American duty — to go out and try them. Unfurl your flags, toast this land, sample saison, celebrate this style's diversity.
Chris Fleisher enjoys relaxing at sidewalk cafes in the “Paris of Appalachia.” He can be reached at 412-320-7854 or firstname.lastname@example.org.