In the craft beer hierarchy, Saison beers don’t hold a candle to IPAs – but that hasn’t stopped them from amassing a loyal following.
In raw numbers, the production difference between the two is staggering. IPAs make up more than 21% of all craft beers on the market. Saisons only account for 0.13%, according to market research firm The IRI Group.
Volume on the category almost doubled last year, though – and you really don’t have to look too hard to find one – especially as spring rolls around.
Saisons are part of the Farmhouse ale family style of beers. (The terms are generally interchangeable by most brewers and drinkers, though there are some subtle differences between the styles). They got their start in Belgium, where farmers would typically brew them during the colder (and less busy) winter months, then store them to enjoy during the spring and summer.
They’re a wide open style, giving brewers lots of freedom to experiment. I’ve tasted everything from fruit forward offerings to one infused with beets. Typically, though, they tend to be cloudy, golden beers that use various citruses and spices to adjust the flavor, with Belgian yeast the overriding character.
And that unique flavor profile is finding fans.
“I think it’s a promising category,” says Bart Watson, chief economist at The Brewers Association. “It captures a lot of what craft beer lovers are looking for. It’s taste forward, not too high ABV. It’s typically very sessionable. It’s lighter in flavor. It can be very complex though. … I think it’s a style that when consumers try it, they’re going to like and order more of.”
Big brewers tend to agree. Brewery Ommegang, for the past few years, has partnered with HBO to create a special limited edition beer for each season of the network’s hit show “Game of Thrones.” Previous versions have included a Blonde Ale, Stout, Red Ale and a Dubbel.
This season, Ommegang will roll out Three-Eyed Raven – a dark Saison, which reportedly adds a bit of toasted malt flavors to the complexity. It’s a beer worth trying, if you spot it at your local craft beer store. Ommegang’s Hennepin is already a favorite among Saison drinkers.
Many Saison beers are now year-round offerings for brewers, but they tend to go down best as the winters fade away, days last longer and there’s a fair bit of warmth. They’re refreshing, highly carbonated offerings that are a wonderful way to toast a hard day’s work.
New to the style and not sure what to try? Here are some of our favorites. (And if you’re a Saison expert, please offer your suggestions in the comments. I’m always on the lookout for a good new one.)
21st Amendment Sneak Attack Saison
This is one you'll have to grab soon - but it's a personal favorite. While most breweries focus on Saisons as spring and summer emerge, 21st Amendment puts Sneak Attack out in the first quarter. Once you have it, though, you'll wish it was a year-round brew. It has the wonderful light taste of a good Saison with mild funkiness, but the addition of cardamom is nothing short of genius, adding a unique twist to the traditional yeast, citrus and spice flavors, making this one especially memorable. (ABV: 6.2%)
Freehouse Ashley Farmhouse Ale
This Charleston, S.C.-brewed Belgian-style Saison is one of the few on the market to be certified organic. It's dry with a mild spiciness and a wonderful, light orange taste. You may also pick up hints of ginger. The funk factor isn't real high, but the drinkability is. This is a beer that pairs especially well with seafood - and is perfect for the year's first fish fry. (ABV: 6.1%)
Vieille Provision Saison Dupont
Widely considered the benchmark for other Saisons, this flagship beer from Belgium's Brasserie Dupont is a good blend of tang and sour. Loaded with carbonation, it's an earthy beer that starts with lemon and pine, then exhibits its tart qualities before finishing extremely dry - more so than most American Saisons. (ABV: 6.5%)
Jester King Noble King
A true farmhouse ale (Jester King is located on a 200-acre farm in Texas), Noble King is a complex, slightly sour Saison/farmhouse that opens with a hint of lemon and an earthy tone, but then the yeast takes over, giving it a very clean finish. (ABV: 5.3%)
Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale
Boulevard Brewing Co.'s farmhouse/Saison tends to be more full-bodied than many of its contemporaries, but offers a nice balance of maltiness, yeast, citrus and clove. And unlike many farmhouse/Saisons, this one's not afraid to lean a bit more heavily on the hops in the brewing process. (ABV: 8.5%)