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Saison - Belgium's Farmhouse Ales

Welcome to the Belgian Style series of blog posts, exploring the many beer styles produced in Belgium. Our style for this post is Saison. Once a farm-brewed beer for migrant workers, Saisons are now brewed year-round in Belgium and have become popular with many craft breweries in the U.S.

Agrarian Roots

Saisons originated in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, especially in the Hainaut district, southeast of Brussels. The name Saison means "season" in French. Saisons were farmhouse ales brewed by farmers for their personal consumption and for "saisoniers" - seasonal farm workers.

They were traditionally brewed in the cool months - from September through March - then stored in cellars for consumption during the summer and at harvest time. As the popularity of these beers grew, farm brewing gave way to year-round production in artisanal breweries that distributed the beers well beyond their agricultural places of origin.

The Saison Style

Because they were originally brewed on farms, there are many variations on the style with no hard-and-fast style guidelines. The style became more defined as larger breweries began producing it, although there are still many variations to this day. Saisons are crisp, dry, refreshing and hoppy with a golden to bronze color, slight haze and dense white head. Their effervescence is the result of natural carbonation (bottle conditioning) - traditionally in champagne bottles. They are dry and well-attenuated with a quenching acidity. One thing all Saisons share is their characterful yeasts, which give the beers a lactic tartness, phenolic spiciness and complex fruit esters. The warmer the fermentation, the more pronounced these characteristics are.

Food Friendly

Saisons are very versatile and pair well with a wide variety of foods. They are especially good with smoked, cured and grilled meats and full-flavored cheeses. The spiciness and bold flavors of Saisons may overwhelm lighter dishes but are excellent with spicy or intensely flavored foods, fish soups and stews and Asian or Middle Eastern dishes. They also go well with robust salads and other summer dishes.

Saison Tasting Panel

The Bruz tasting panel recently tasted a number of commercial Saisons from both Belgian and North American breweries.

The panel thought Saison Dupont was as good as ever. It has been touted by some as one of the best beers in the world - largely due to its unique yeast, which has been described as "a yeast among yeasts - touched by God." Another panel favorite was Funkwerks Saison, which was flavorful, well-balanced and very drinkable, with a depth of complexity. Ommegang's Hennepin was also a standout - intricate and complex with a smooth thirst-quenching character. Firestone Walker's Opal was a different, but very pleasant, interpretation of the style and Crooked Stave's Surette Provision Saison was complex, flavorful and well-crafted. Our Bruz Beers Winter Solstice Saison was tart and citrusy with a lively flavor profile and a touch more alcohol than most. The Lost Abbey's Saison Blanc was cleanly made and tasty, but lacked the intense character of many of the other examples. Fantome's Pissenlit (dandelion infused) Saison was dull and disappointing.

Join us as we take in-depth looks at other Belgian styles in the weeks and months to come as part of our ongoing Belgian Style blog series.

 

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Belgian Style - Witbier (White Beer)

Welcome to the Belgian Style Series of blog posts. During this series, we will look at the many beer styles produced in Belgium. In each post, we’ll focus on one major style and explore it in depth.

Our style for this post is Belgian Witbier (White Beer in English and Biere Blanche in French). It’s called white beer because it is very pale and has a hazy - or “white” - appearance due to suspended yeast and wheat proteins. Witbiers are made from barley malt and a high proportion of unmalted wheat. They are fresh, effervescent and best consumed young. In recent years, witbiers have seen growing popularity in Europe and have become a favorite style of craft breweries here in the United States.

A Long History with a Recent Revival

Historically, the witbier style has been around for hundreds of years – with records of witbier being produced in Belgian monasteries as far back as the 14th century. The farming area around Louvain, east of Brussels, became known for its many witbiers. Over the years, though, as clear, golden lagers became the rage across Europe, witbiers lost popularity and had died out completely by the 1950s. Then, in 1966, a milkman by the name of Pierre Celis revived the style in the small Belgian village of Hoegaarden, and its popularity has grown steadily ever since. Today, Hoegaarden Wit remains the classic example of witbier and enjoys worldwide distribution.

Rustic and Exotic Ingredients

Witbiers are traditionally half malted barley (pilsner malt) and half unmalted wheat (hard red winter wheat). Sometimes, a small proportion of oats and/or malted wheat is used as well. Hops are typically herbal - East Kent Goldings or Saaz varieties - and bittering is low, usually around 20 IBUs. The most unique ingredients in witbier, though, are spices – a throwback to the days when more than just hops were used to counter the sweetness of the grains.

The most common spices in witbier are coriander and bitter Curacao orange peel, although ginger, cardamom, cumin, chamomile or grains of paradise show up in many examples.

Complex Sensory Profile

Witbiers are typically bottle or cask conditioned and unfiltered, casting a bit of sediment. They are 4.5 to 5.0 percent alcohol by volume and sport a dense, mousse-like head. Their perfumy aroma leads to a silky mouthfeel and a slightly tart, honey-like flavor with fruity and herbal notes.

Witbiers are quintessentially Belgian – combining a refreshing rural character with an exotic touch. They have long been a summertime staple, but in recent times have gained year-round popularity.

Witbier Tasting Panel

The Bruz tasting panel recently tasted a variety of commercial witbiers from both Belgian and North American breweries. Tasting them all together was a rare opportunity to compare a range of beers in one sitting. 

The panel liked the Belgian (and Canadian) examples best. The hands-down favorite was St. Bernardus Wit, which was clean, aromatic, flavorful and perfectly balanced. Not surprising as Pierre Celis himself helped the St. Sixtus monks formulate the recipe. Close behind it were Unibroue’s Blanche de Chambly, Hoegaarden Wit, and Blanche de Bruxelles. Again, balance, complexity and harmonious aromas and flavors put these at the top of the list.

From U.S. craft breweries, Allagash White and Ommegang Witte rivaled their Belgian counterparts, with Samuel Adams Cold Snap (Winter Seasonal) joining them. Avery’s White Rascal was true to the style and Blue Moon showed particularly well for a macro-brewery offering. Alaskan White was surprisingly one-dimensional while Anheuser Busch’s Shock Top came in a distant last.

Join us as we take in-depth looks at other Belgian styles in the weeks and months to come as part of our ongoing Belgian Style blog series. 

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