When we first discovered Saison DuPont many years ago, we were thrilled by its remarkable combination of adventure and balance. We still are. Today’s “Saison” beers, however—on both sides of the Atlantic—tend to overlap the two styles of wild and sour ales. The Saisons of our (relative) youth had a funky offbeat fruitiness, but were far more refreshing than challenging.
DuPont was then, and for us is still, the gold standard. It’s certainly not as rough-hewn as most of the true farmhouse beers, but it is beautifully accessible without sacrificing integrity. Unfortunately, “Saisons” have too often become an excuse for brewers to brew carelessly: embracing infections that brewers have battled against for decades, and fermenting their product at temperatures that do produce distinctive flavors, but at a cost of drinkability. Nevertheless, several modern gems stand out among the newcomers’ attempts at the style.
For better or worse, the style has exploded since Michael Jackson helped introduce it to the world decades ago. We were struck by the number of Saisons we encountered in Italy this year. Florence’s Beer House Club poured Almond 22’s 45 Lune, brewed for the 45th wedding anniversary of their brewmaster. It was pretty close to what you’d expect from a decent American craft brewery, with the yeast and high fermentation temperatures producing lots of fruit, some of it peach and much of it very ripe. It was tasty and professional, but still something of a challenge to make an evening out of.
We found a Saison that was just as interesting but less of a challenge, however, at Baladin’s Rome outlet, Open Baladin. Open Baladin is one of several craft beer bars that have mushroomed just outside the city’s touristy center and one of the few that are a pretty easy walk from those tourist sights. They feature Baladin beers, of course, but also a range of other craft beers. We believe the “Open Baladin” beers on the menu are crafted for this outlet. The Open Baladin Saison Mule was one of the best small-brewery Saisons we’ve had. It had all the usual ripe fruit, though it showed more white grape than many. However, a peppery finish led to a dry end that created a more-ish balance that left us mourning the passing of the last drops.
Good Saisons, then, are still works of wonder, and not at all easy to produce. The yeast matters. Closer to home, Mad Fox Brewpub in Falls Church, Virginia recently switched yeasts to raise its already acceptable Saison to a much higher level. If you’re near Northern Virginia or Northwest DC (Mad Fox’s Taphouse is now open in Glover Park), make a point of seeking it out when it’s on tap.