In the course of conducting this tasting, the regular crew of Paste blind tasters hit upon an essay prompt of a question: If you could only drink one beer style ever again, what would it be?
The almost expected answer, at least at this point in the American craft beer experiment, would be IPA—or perhaps pale ale for the drinker favoring approachability rather than all-out hop decadence. But over the course of nine days tasting farmhouse ales, many of us came to a new conclusion. It’s the most versatile, eclectic and adaptable of all beer styles. Like champagne is to wine, saison is to beer—you can pair it with anything, and a variant exists for any situation.
Just the word “saison” is weighty with possibility. Seeing it on a beer label, all by itself, tells you almost nothing about what to expect. You may be presented with a beer heavy on Belgian yeast esters, redolent in clove and spice. If there’s enough wheat in the grist, it may blur the lines between “farmhouse ale” and hefeweizen. It may be charged with noble or American hops to the point that it rivals the hop expressiveness of IPA. It may be fruited, or spiced, or even dark in color. Or it may be wild—but even here, we’re just stepping off another cliff into a sea of further subgenres. An all brettanomyces saison will likely make funkiness its calling card, while a mixed culture beer with lactobacillus or pediococcus will undoubtedly bring a cleaner, brighter tang of tartness. And that’s not even mentioning the barrels into which you might place your saison: Spirit barrels, wine barrels, neutral oak and more.
ALL of those beers are in this tasting.
Yes, we realize the inherent level of absurdity and difficulty in comparing them to one another. In the end, a puckeringly tart, wine barrel-aged saison has little in common with a classic Franco-Belgian example of the style, such as Saison Dupont. But as in previous Paste tastings, we’d prefer to be inclusive rather than exclusive. As long as the beer in question is marketed as “saison” or “farmhouse ale,” then it’s A-OK by us for inclusion.
Please note: These rules go both ways. When we blind taste American wild ales/sours in July, beers labeled as “saison/farmhouse ale” will be ineligible, which further incentivized breweries to enter them now, rather than later. In the end, we believe in judging the beers as labeled, because it forces the breweries to live by their own marketing choices—no entering beers by saying “Well, it’s labeled as _____, but really it’s ______.”
In the end, we needn’t have worried. Saisons of all possible descriptions all did admirably in the tasting—clean, funky, tart and everywhere inbetween. So let’s get to it.
As in most of our blind tastings at Paste, the vast majority of these saisons were sent directly to the office by the breweries that choose to participate, with additional beers acquired by us via locally available purchases and the occasional trade. We always do our best to reach out to breweries we’re aware of that make exemplary versions of particular styles, but things always do slip through the cracks. We apologize for a few significant omissions that we couldn’t acquire, either due to seasonality or market shortages. There will never be a “perfect” tasting lineup, much as we continue to try.
On the plus side, this saison tasting includes several noteworthy breweries that have never been part of a Paste blind tasting before, including Hill Farmstead and de Garde Brewing.
- As explained above, this is exclusively a tasting of saison/farmhouse ale/grisette, largely determined by how the breweries chose to label their products. There was no ABV limit. When in doubt, we simply allow a brewery’s marketing to define a beer’s style, and expect them to stick to the designation they’ve chosen.
- There was a limit of two entries per brewery. The beers were separated into daily blind tastings that approximated a sample size of the entire field.
- Tasters included professional beer writers, brewery owners, brewmasters and beer reps. Awesome, Paste-branded glassware is from Spiegelau.
- Beers were judged completely blind by how enjoyable they were as individual experiences and given scores of 1-100, which were then averaged. Entries were judged by how much we enjoyed them for whatever reason, not by how well they fit any kind of preconceived style guidelines. As such, this is not a BJCP-style tasting.
Let me tell you: We had some good freakin’ beers in this tasting. In fact, in 2.5 years of doing blind tastings, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the average scores end up this high—there are plenty of scores here in The Field that would normally land a beer in the middle of the ranked portion of the list, or higher.
There were, of course, some misfires. Not every tart saison got the benefit of the doubt, as some of them were either overly sour or otherwise unapproachable. There were also a handful of unacceptably “sweat sock” examples of the style we encountered over the course of nine days of tasting, but overall, this was one of our highest quality lineups ever.
As ever, the following beers are simply listed in alphabetical order, which means they are not ranked. I repeat: These beers are not ranked.
Adelbert’s Brewer Hibiscus Saison
Adelbert’s Brewery Philosophizer Saison Ale
Big Boss Brewing Co. Space Mistress
Blackberry Farm Fenceline
Boulevard Saison Brett
Brasserie Du Bocq Saison 1858
Brew Gentlemen Mise en Rose Table Beer
Brewery Vivant Farmhand
Brewery Vivant Tropical Saison
Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace
Brouwerij West Dog Ate My Homework
Brouwerij West Saison
Burial Beer Co. Garden of Earthly Delights
Cerebral Brewing Ambiguous Vibes
Clown Shoes Black Currant Saison
Crooked Stave Surette
Crooked Stave Wild Sage Mountain Saison
Dubuisson Surfine Saison
Brasserie Dupont Foret
8 Wired/Modern Times Halfway to Whangarei Grisette
Brasserie Fantome Saison
Fieldwork Farmhouse Wheat Saison
Foam Brewers Bubbles
Foam Brewers Ghost
Four Noses Pineapple Saison
Four Quarters Fleur de Lis
Four Quarters Maison
Fremont Dark Saison Brett
FunkWerks Tropic King
Gizmo Brew Works Deep Blue Saison
Gizmo Brew Works Skimboard
Goose Island Halia
Great Divide Colette Farmhouse Ale
Great Divide Nadia Kali
Henniker Brewing Co. Rustique
Hi-Wire Tropical Sour Weisse
The Hourglass Brewery Lost Creek Saison
Iron John’s Saison de Juhki
Jackie O’s Pub & Brewery Off the Beaten Path
Left Hand Saison Aux Baies Ameres
Left Hand Saison au Miel
Life Bridge Farm Girl Saison
Lost Abbey Red Barn
Mill Creek Brewing Co. Silo
New Belgium French Oak Saison
Night Shift Homestead
NoDa Brewing Co. Baril de Saison
Our Mutual Friend Brewing Co. Dreamy Thing
Perennial Artisan Ales Saison de Lis
pFriem Family Brewers Saison
Prairie Artisan Ales Prairie-Vous Francais
River North Brewery Farm House
River North Brewery J. Marie Saison
Sam Adams Longshot Barnstorm Saison
Schlafly Peach Saison Ale
Second Self Experimental Saison #2
Short’s Brewing Co. Captain Fantasy
Sly Fox Brewing Co. Grisette
Sly Fox Brewing Co. Saison Vos
Smartmouth Brewing Co. Alter Ego
Smartmouth Brewing Co. Alter(ed) Ego
Spider Bite Beer Co. Blanc Grissette
Strange Land Brewery Ploughshare Saison
Summit Brewing Co. Unchained
Terrapin Beer Co. Maggie’s Peach Farmhouse Ale
Three Taverns Brettanics
Three Taverns Total BS
TRVE Brewing Co. Ancient Bole
Two Roads Brewing Co. Worker’s Stomp
Upland Marion the Agrarian
Urban Chestnut Apotheosis
Wild Heaven Beer White Blackbird
Yazoo Brewing Co. Grisette
Among the beers that placed into the ranked portion of the list, there was quite a lot of variety. Every substyle of saison is well-represented, but beyond that, this lineup is a veritable murderer’s row of well-regarded breweries. Not many breweries made the ranked portion more than once, but I think it’s revealing to note which ones did, because they line up pretty closely with breweries that are considered exemplary. The only brewers to place two beers in the ranked portion of the list were the following: Hill Farmstead, de Garde, Allagash, Ommegang and (perhaps the one surprise) Good People. Kudos to all of those guys, but also to everyone who made the finals in general. It was an especially strong field.
City: San Marcos, CA
The verdict: Both of the classic saisons from Lost Abbey, Carnevale and Red Barn, ended up right next to each other in the final ranking, but it was Carnevale that squeaked its way into the numbered part of the list. This saison has a little bit of everything—it’s approachable but not lacking in subtleties, well-hopped but not defined by hoppiness, and classic but with a touch of wildness. There’s some slight brettanomyces character, but it tastes more like a classic Belgian saison profile than an unleashed, funk-forward wild ale. The hops contribute plenty of citrus, which flows into a nice, peachy stone fruit note, while the high carbonation prickles on the palate. All in all, a good balance of fruitiness, hops and yeast-derived character.
City: Portland, ME
The verdict: This was a pretty momentous beer for Allagash, when they debuted it a couple years ago. It seems weird to think that a brewery famed for Belgian styles never had a “house saison” in the years prior, but despite the fact that they frequently produced farmhouse ales, they never had a year-round flagship entry in the category as they do in say, witbier via Allagash White. On the nose it’s quite citrus forward—one taster even referred to it as “saison shandy,” although not all of the rest agreed about the strength of the lemon/orange character. On the palate, Allagash Saison is lightly sweet, with a bit of toasted bread, peppery spice and plenty more citrus. Refreshing and light of body, it seems built for warm weather drinking and checks several of the same boxes as Allagash White, although we find the White packs a stronger spice profile. Still, it would probably be a fine companion to a lobster roll.
City: Walland, TN
The verdict: Saison is at the heart of Blackberry Farm’s stylistic wheelhouse, so it’s unsurprising that they would do well here. Nearly every taster’s notes proclaims this beer effortlessly easy drinking: “Clean, zippy, easy drinking saison,” or “Great traditional flavors and easy drinking, refreshing for all saison purposes.” It seems that everyone who tasted it immediately pegged it for what it was: A very traditional, well balanced, well executed take on saison, which packs some doughy, bready maltiness with hints of lemon citrus and spice. Banana-like esters are a feature, as is puffy, consistent carbonation. Rustic, authentic and a pleasure to drink. It’s one of the few 750 ml bottles in the tasting where a wine bottle seems like a perfectly approachable one-person serving.
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: Performing well in our recent tastings—in several different styles, we should note—is Denver’s Cerebral Brewing Co., who this time offered the excellently named Ripping Through Dimensions, a 100% brettanomyces saison that is dry hopped with Galaxy and an experimental hop varietal. The result is intriguing—soft, citrusy and tarter than some other 100% brett beers, it retains some of the funk but doesn’t have the woodiness of the barrel-aged brett beers. The combination of hops and wild yeast deliver a diverse fruit flavor profile, with grapefruit that morphs into a more exotic passionfruit-type note. All around, well-balanced, and a nice middle ground between the super funky brettanomyces saisons and the more sour, lacto-fueled beers that seem more like American wild ales.
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: Paste’s home city of Atlanta fared well in this tasting, with several locals presenting us with outstanding farmhouse ales in a variety of styles. Second Self’s take on the style is hop-forward thanks to some dry hopping, but not outrageously so—this isn’t an attempt to take a saison and hop it like an IPA, but rather an effort to add a wrinkle of American hop complexity to an otherwise classic style. Mosaic and Citra are used sparingly to give the beer some perceptible citrus and grassy/resinous notes on the nose, in a beer that is otherwise very clean and on the milder side of the assertiveness spectrum. And that’s all it takes to be a good beer—light, approachable and drinkable, with some delicate maltiness and fresh hops, and a touch of Belgian yeast esters. That’ll do.
City: Stratford, CT
The verdict: Two Roads makes a nice reference in this title to the historical roots of the style—the classical style of Franco-Belgian saison was indeed largely used for “worker compensation,” being brewed at home and meted out to the farmhands to slake their thirst after being out in the fields all day. Fittingly, this is a lower ABV version of the style, almost grisette-like, but one that packs a good volume of flavor into a modest framework. The complexity added by the multigrain mash bill of barley, wheat, oats and rye is key, as the clean malt flavors split between doughy, bready notes and a lingering peppery quality of rye. Score sheets all came to extremely similar conclusions: “Classic French saison, right down the middle, a bit hefe-like.” “Nothing wrong with this at all, a bit hefe.” “Straight-forward, right down the middle.” It earns some points by being just as flavorful (if not more so) than many of the saisons 1-2 points higher in ABV.
City: Kansas City, MO
The verdict: Along with Ommegang’s Hennepin, Tank 7 from Boulevard is probably the most “important” or influential of all American saisons. The style just wasn’t the kind of thing you saw as a year-round offering from bigger, regional craft breweries before the late 2000s, but Tank 7 changed all that by becoming one of Boulevard’s most popular and best-selling beers—and much of the evolution that has come along in the years since has hinged on Tank 7’s popularization of farmhouse ales with the craft beer rank and file. The profile hews toward the spicy and the herbal—peppery and sort of coriander-esque spice, with herbal notes that are almost sage or mint-like. Piney hops peek out occasionally, and everything plays nice with high carbonation and pillowy foam. It’s slightly on the sweeter side than some of the others, likely owing to the sneakily hidden 8.5% ABV, but still finishes dry. As far as an American answer to Saison Dupont goes, this beer definitely earns a place in the saison hall of fame.
City: Milton, DE
THe verdict: This three way collaboration between Dogfish Head, Stone and Victory has more or less become an institution at this point, although it’s interesting to note that this 2017 batch is the first one brewed at Dogfish Head since 2014. Your mileage will vary entirely by whether you can appreciate the intense, aromatic bouquet of herbs used in its brewing—parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, in true Simon & Garfunkel fashion. They burst out of the foam with dominant spicy/herbal impressions that come through especially strongly with sage and rosemary. “Very unique, herbaceous beer,” wrote one taster who seemed to have a pretty strong suspicion of what he was drinking. “Cocktail ingredient beer” wrote another, perhaps viewing his glass with an eye toward its mixology applications. Regardless, DFH pulls off a pretty difficult task here of playing with strong, dominating adjuncts and somehow creating a beer that is defined by them while maintaining a baseline of drinkability. There were a good number of herb-laden beers in this tasting that could not say the same.
City: Bend, OR
The verdict: One of the more impressive things about this wine barrel-aged saison is that you’d really never know it was 9.9% ABV in a blind tasting—sitting next to beers 3 or 4% ABV lower, the booze isn’t jumping out at you here. Aged in red wine barrels with a couple strains of brettanomyces, this beer brings a firm level of tartness and tons of juicy fruit flavors both lighter and darker. That’s an odd touch you don’t see every day—the fruit character seems simultaneously big on citrus while also having some hints of red berry, almost as if it was aged in multiple styles of wine barrel. Oak is assertive, even close to dominant at times, as it is clear that this beer sucked quite a lot of character out of the barrel. In the end, it ends up on the right side of the line.
City: Longwood, FL
The verdict: This was the first time that anyone at Paste had tasted anything from Longwood, Florida’s Hourglass, but we walked out of this tasting wondering if perhaps we had discovered one of the Southeast’s better kept brewery secrets. It seems strange that a beer this solid would have so few ratings online, which suggests that perhaps people have been sleeping on them—and they should wake up, because Saison du Sablier is lovely. One of the more purely funky beers on any of the days of this tasting, it’s hard to tell if there’s brettanomyces involved or whether this is just an extremely expressive Belgian yeast strain, but it creates a perfumed head of spice and fruit that is entrancing. From one score sheet: “Grassy, peppery, funky goodness.” From another: “Super barnyard; if you want funk, this is your beer.” Very impressively executed stuff—we hope to see some more from this brewery in the future.
City: Seattle, WA
The verdict: Fremont is a brewery that seems to excel in these blind tastings regardless of what the style in question might be, which is a rare talent. We’ve never really tasted a farmhouse ale/brett beer from them before, but what else is new—they made a good one. Surprise, surprise. This newish beer is distinctly white winey in character, despite not being barrel-aged as far as we can tell. There’s a tannic, slightly grapey quality that blends with notes of green apple that you will often get from brettanomyces. It’s more funky than sour, although there is a soft, light tartness that only serves to enhance drinkability. “Lightweight but complex” reads one succinct tasting note. It’s a good case study for how wild yeast can impart a lovely degree of complexity to beers that aren’t necessarily pushing the boundaries on ABV or explosive flavors.
City: Everett, MA
The verdict: The Marcel Duchamp-inspired name suggests that this beer will be a classic French saison, but in execution it’s a little more nouveau than that. Night Shift describes it as a “tart saison in stainless steel tanks,” which is to say a soured saison created without the aid of barrels, but compared to many of the tart saisons this one is really on the gentle side. It’s actually more “funky” than outright tart/sour, with a really great profile of bready/grainy malt complexity and some supporting lemon citrus. Refreshing and quaffable, it definitely feels and drinks like a lower ABV farmhouse ale. From one score sheet: “Bright citrus and crisp malt.” From another: “Nicely funky, yeasty and all around lovely.” Perhaps it’s just because we tasted plenty of puckeringly tart saisons in the course of this tasting, but this Night Shift entry seemed quite adroitly tactful in comparison.
City: Westlake, OH
The verdict: Here’s a classic style saison that leans more heavily on its malt and yeast profile than many of the others, with a more deeply toasted malt character that was present in a handful of these beers but not often appreciated by the tasters … but this is the exception that proves the rule. The Belgian yeast strain here is expressive, with big, clovey phenols that stand out, and a banana ester that was irresistible to several of the tasters. “Overripe banana aroma … in a good way,” reads one of the score sheets. “Slight hoppiness and wheaty banana bread” reads another. It’s just a solid, old-school saison that throws itself behind the quality of the ingredients and the classic yeast profile.
City: Ipswich, MA
The verdict: If and when we were presented with “hoppy saison” in this tasting, it was usually an excuse to fit in some juicy, citrusy or tropical American hops into the saison mold, but Ipswich takes things in a different direction. Their hop-forward saison balances floral, piney and lightly resinous hop character with some lemon citrus and just a touch of Belgian yeast-derived funkiness. It’s light on the palate and not very expressive as a Belgian ale, but at the same time the hop character provides an interesting counterbalance. Sampled outside of this kind of organized tasting, you might actually identify it as an American pale ale, and a perfectly balanced one at that.
City: Tillamook, OR
The verdict: de Garde is one of the country’s most sought-after producers of wild ales, sours and farmhouse ales, and has been for several years now, but this is our first time having an opportunity to welcome them to a blind tasting at Paste. This beer, Anianish, is something of a mystery: The description simply says “a wild farmhouse ale aged in oak with fruit & spices,” without specifying the nature of either. Nevertheless, “fruit” and “spice” appear on pretty much every score sheet: “Gingery spice and dried fruit, fairly tart and slightly cidery,” to quote one. Some of the tasters got significant grapefruit citrus out of it, which provides a nice balance of sweetness to counteract slightly puckering tartness. It’s a complex, well-made beer that we can’t help but think might present completely differently on a different day, owing to the contrasting flavor profiles at play. This is one we’d really like to taste again at some point.
City: St. Louis, MO
The verdict: Perennial is among the most dependably great of all the breweries that regularly submit beers for these blind tastings, so this is no big surprise. Their offering here has obviously been oak-aged, and it’s imparted a moderate level of tartness. The big charge of lemony citrus and bready malt flavors almost make us think of a Berliner weisse—this is one of those beers stretching the definitions between saison/farmhouse and other tart beer styles—but there’s also some funkier, apple/pear type fruit impressions hiding under the surface if you can get past the tart, juicy fruit. A nice undercurrent of oak caps everything off, in a beer that isn’t extremely complex, but very, very easy to enjoy. It’s beers like this that have been so successful in converting white wine drinkers into sour beer geeks.
City: Dexter, MI
The verdict: Having been around since at least 2006, Bam Biere has to be considered a formative beer and elder statesman in this genre, as far as American saisons are concerned. Tasting it, we’re not surprised that the brewery uses this beer as a template for myriad other variations—it’s so well balanced and right down the middle that it’s the perfect neutral canvas for experimentation. But the beer is also still a pleasure to drink all on its own—light of body and easygoing, with lively carbonation, it brings crisp, lightly grainy maltiness and a kiss of floral and citrusy hops, but nothing excessive. There’s nothing in the description that would lead you to expect it to be sour, but there does seem to be just a wisp of tartness here for whatever reason, but in an obviously pleasant way. It feels like a beer for extended porch drinking sessions.
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: Red Brick is Atlanta’s oldest brewery, predating even SweetWater, so it’s pretty cool to see one of the Southeast’s O.G. brewers show their stuff in a blind tasting setting. This is a straight-forward, approachable, sessionable farmhouse ale brewed with lemon and tangerine peel—hence the name—but the funny thing is, we didn’t particularly get a ton of citrus off it, at least compared to some of the other beers on the table. Rather, all the tasters enjoyed and commented on its classic yeast profile—funky and assertive, with big clove phenols and peppery spice. The funkier saisons always run a risk of crossing some kind of tipping point and coming off as “musty” or mildew-like, which this one deftly avoids. And at only 5.5% ABV, it’s packing a very respectable amount of outright flavor into each 12 oz can. Next time we taste it, we’ll probably get the citrus more prominently, but as it is, the tasters simply appreciated an excellent saison.
City: Cooperstown, NY
The verdict: There was some concern when we started that the higher ABV saisons might just run roughshod over the session saisons and grisettes in this tasting, but the results didn’t really bear that out. Rather, it was often unique flavor combinations that carried the day, and that’s what this Ommegang session saison gave us. Spiced with grains of paradise and coriander, it has an exotic, spicy nose that almost evokes a Belgian witbier rather than classical farmhouse ale—but when you’re a brewery that also makes one of the most famous American saisons in the form of Hennepin, it makes sense to branch out a bit here. To go to the score sheets: “Drinks like a witbier, notes of coriander, dry and refreshing beer with a beautiful head.” Ommegang know their farmhouse ales, that’s for sure.
City: Birmingham, AL
The verdict: This is a good example of what one might call the “Americanized” saison—a farmhouse ale using a Belgian ale yeast of some kind, but not wringing quite as much intensity out of it in certain aspects, such as the banana/clove combination. Instead, it’s cleaner and the malt shines through very crisply—grainy and lightly bready, with pleasant complexity. Lightly fruity esters of stone fruit build throughout—the more you go back to it, the more you start getting a nice peach/apricot note, and maybe something like juicy pear. All in all, it remains quite approachable throughout, an easygoing saison that has some hidden depths worth seeking out.
City: Chicago, IL
The verdict: It had been a little while since we last tasted this classic, partially barrel-aged saison from Goose Island, but it hasn’t changed much from how we remembered it. Goose cites the blend as “80% Belgian ale, 20% Belgian ale in wine barrels with citrus peel,” which gives the final beer some very pleasant and delicate hints of oak without it tasting exclusively like a wine barrel sour. There’s some mild tartness, an undercurrent of wild yeast-like funk and green apple, a bit of tangerine/mimosa-esque citrus. Multiple tasters also cited “melon” of varying degrees in their notes. To quote one: “Soft, melon-like flavor, particularly honeydew.” This beer happened to be on the table on the same day as the previously mentioned Perennial Artisan Ales Foudre Saison, and the similarities between the two were remarked upon several times. Which is to say, we enjoyed them both for very similar reasons.
City: Cooperstown, NY
The verdict: Before there was Boulevard Tank 7, there was Hennepin laying the foundations for the popularization of American-made saison. For a number of years, this was probably the beer that anyone (at least on the East Coast) would likely think of if you said “saison,” and it still holds up today. For one thing, the mouthfeel and texture of this beer are really stand-out features—so easy to overlook, but in a blind tasting, next to a bunch of other examples of the same style, those textural differences stand out even more. It’s creamy, smooth and dense-feeling, with big Belgian aromatics of clove and pepper/coriander-like spice. “Big, round, solid and spicy” reads one score sheet. “Lovely mouthfeel and yeasty, spicy profile, great classic saison flavor” says another. That about says it all. Unlike some of the other beers to come through this particular tasting, this isn’t one you’d misidentify as any style other than saison.
City: Los Angeles, CA
The verdict: It’s interesting to note that of the beers that did well, a number of them all incorporated citrus peels—perhaps we’re just suckers for that particular addition in this style, but Golden Road pulls it off here very nicely. Meyer lemon comes through in a way that is genuine rather than artificial, and although the beer isn’t “tart” as it were, the lemon flavors evoke that kind of bright, slightly acidic profile. There also seem to be some hops on the nose of this beer—green, grassy and a touch floral, which works well with the citrus. “Light, perfumey, delicate aroma” reads one score sheet. On some level, it feels a bit like an American pale wheat beer with a bit more verve, but there’s nothing wrong with that. A little bit of residual, honey-like sweetness helps it a fun, easygoing beer go down smooth.
City: Portland, ME
The verdict: This is the rare case in this list where ABV really does come into play, because Astrid is a powerful, intensely flavorful barrel-aged saison. First fermented in stainless with both saison yeast and brettanomyces, it’s then thrown into aquavit spirits barrels for an additional eight months, which is to say this stuff is not fooling around. The barrels come through strongly, as there’s plenty of oak, although if you gave this to 100 people on the street, none of them would think to say “aquavit.” The palette of flavors is unusual and beguiling—funky barnyard characteristics, spice, booze and citrus, but there’s almost a salinity to this beer as well that might make you think of an imperialized gose. Residual sweetness is unsurprisingly on the higher side, as everything about Astrid points to a higher volume of flavor. It’s a little bombastic, but tasters couldn’t say no.
City: Denver, CO
The verdict: Everything about Denver’s TRVE is METAL, so naturally their sour project is called THE ACID TEMPLE, and this is the first beer it produced in 2015. The base beer is a nod toward simplicity and tradition, but that beer then goes into large oak puncheons with multiple yeast strains to become something entirely different. It emerges as a tart, refreshing farmhouse beer that is bright and citrus-forward, with big, sweet-and-sour flavors of lemon and grapefruit leading the way. “Sort of a tart lemon meringue pie, with subtle hopping,” reads one of the tasting sheets. A pleasant, floral hoppiness is the finishing touch on this sophisticated but poolside-appropriate beer. Big flavors, small package, what’s not to like?
City: Birmingham, AL
The verdict: Birmingham’s Good People has been flying the flag for Alabama craft beer for years now, consistently performing in the top tier of various Paste blind tastings. Most recent is the development of their “funk farm” sour program, which earlier this year produced a lovely red wine barrel sour with blackberries and raspberries. Here, we have a lighter take, what tastes like a mixed culture beer that features a more gentle, approachable tartness. The brettanomyces funk is nicely smoothed or rounded out by the red wine barrels employed here—one of only a couple of saisons in this tasting to feature red wine barrels rather than white, in fact. You get hints of red berries, along with plenty of citrus and a whiff of hefe-like banana esters. Good People continues to produce beers here that stand up to some of the best in the world in a blind tasting setting.
City: Greensboro Bend, VT
The verdict: It’s an odd experience to go into a blind tasting with no first-hand knowledge of a beer, but nevertheless have expectations of what it might taste like. In the case of Hill Farmstead, it’s almost impossible to not have some level of trepidation because of the hype bestowed upon what is often called the best brewery in the world. We’ve never been fortunate enough to have a Hill Farmstead beer in a tasting before this, but for whatever reason, I’d always imagined their house saison, Arthur, as being a classical funk bomb. And yet … that’s really not it at all. Rather, this is a really beautifully balanced farmhouse ale that make significant use of both Euro and American hops, and delivers a profile that isn’t “challenging” to tasters but inherently, universally enjoyable. The wonderfully soft, velvety texture is the vessel for big citrus flavors of lemon and orange peel, with more than a touch of residual sweetness. An ever-so-calculatedly small level of tartness enhances the “juicy” impression of those citrus flavors, as well as drinkability, in a way that one score sheet describes as “checking a lot of boxes.” In short, this wasn’t the brettanoymces funk bomb that I was subconsciously expecting, but much more of a refreshing, crowd-pleasing saison that most any brewery would kill to have as a year-rounder.
City: Boulder, CO
The verdict: Avery knows that stone fruits are often the key to our hearts, and that certainly proved the case with Perzik. Interestingly, this one isn’t really overtly tart or sour—it’s more of a classical saison to which summer peaches have simply been added. The stone fruit note comes through wonderfully, and was picked up by several tasters who correctly identified it as peach or apricot, along with a bit of vanilla-like sweetness—it’s almost like some really great peach yogurt, if that makes sense. Some moderate residual sweetness might be a bit much for some drinkers—probably the kind of thing that might make some call this beer too one dimensional—but given the authentic-tasting stone fruit profile, it seems earned to us. If you love peaches as much as we do, this is one to seek out.
City: Tulsa, OK
The verdict: It’s funny to think that Prairie’s two fields of expertise are seemingly so disparate—big, barrel-aged stouts, coupled with saisons/wild ales—but it’s truly helped them carve out a niche that is all their own. Prairie Ale is their classic, flagship saison, a beer that we’ve praised in the past and intend to keep right on praising, because it’s still excellent. A trio of ale, wine and wild yeasts are doing the heavy lifting here, creating a perfumed nose that is both familiar and exotic at the same time. There’s a bit of banana ester present, as well as notable lemongrass and black peppery spice, but the drinker is perhaps more likely to be captivated by some of the more tropical fruit notes on display—we got pineapple and something a bit like fresh papaya, which was a very pleasant surprise. All in all, it feels like a beer that would yield a different experience each time you tasted it, depending on a variety of factors such as freshness or even glassware. Pair it with some good cheese and go wild.
City: Atlanta, GA
The verdict: We’ve had a chance to try many of the offerings from Orpheus, given that they exist in Paste’s Atlanta vicinity, but Even the Furies Wept is truly on another level from their previous soured offerings. You can taste the time that went into this beer—something like 18 months in a variety of barrels before blending, if we remember right. The majority is a saison aged in sauternes barrels—a French style of dessert wine, if you’re not familiar with the term. The profile was similar to another beer on the table the same day, Crux’s In the Pocket—big oak and citrus, but softer and a bit less harsh in terms of its tartness, which would probably make it the more universally enjoyable of the two. The funk is abiding and complex, as the brewery used a blend of beers made with yeasts from various classic Belgian/wild ale breweries to make something that more or less defies description. It’s the kind of beer that can only be made with time, and a lot of it.
City: Portland, OR
The verdict: Breakside is another one of those breweries we’ve come to expect to do well in practically any style, regardless of what it may be—they’ve given us high ranking beers in styles as disparate as pilsner, IPA, Belgian quad and now barrel-aged saison. This one, a saison reimagining of a beer they previously released as a “Belgian pale ale,” is aged in pinot noir barrels, which impart a lot of oak but not a ton of the red fruitiness you’d probably expect. Instead, it’s moderately funky, with crisp malt and an earthy character that blends well with dry-hopped aromatics of grass, resin and lemon citrus. One of the tasters dubbed it “New American Saison,” writing “Funky nose and great oak character. Makes me want a thick pork chop.” Breakside deftly balances three major players of funk, oak and hops in a triptych of harmony.
City: Greensboro Bend, VT
The verdict: Compared with Arthur, Hill Farmstead’s flip side of the coin is more alike than it is completely disparate, but the balance is even more impeccable. A bit funkier than Arthur, this Bière de Miel is as dry and refreshing as you’d expect—you know when you see “honey” on the label that a brewery like Hill Farmstead is going to let those simple sugars ferment out completely. We get touches of green apple and hayloft in this one, with a wonderfully supple, smooth mouthfeel that doesn’t compromise the fact that this farmhouse ale is a real quaffer. From one score sheet: “Bretty and slightly tart, dry and refreshing, subtle funk but real drinkability.” This is lovely beer.
City: Hood River, OR
The verdict: pFriem has been killing it in our blind tastings lately, and this barrel-aged saison was no exception. Spending six months in chardonnay barrels, it’s hitting a near perfect center point among the tart versions of this style that we sampled—tart but not puckering, fruity but not absurd, sweet but not cloying. Barrel funk and oak pop first, followed by fruit flavors of pear and lots of juicy, more tropical fruit—think pineapple or mango. Light residual sweetness plays well with those juicy fruit flavors, and there’s even an undercurrent of lightly resinous American hops running under it all. You definitely get the sense that you’re drinking a white wine barrel beer, and one with no shortage of character. Drinkers were impressed by the way it also retained its “saison” status, rather than coming across exclusively as a sour: “Big wine/oak flavor, but it stays in the true saison range.”
City: Braddock, PA
The verdict: Brew Gentlemen, who shot onto our radars by producing our #2 IPA out of a whopping 247 last summer, have introduced their “Mise en Rose” series, which are all barrel-aged farmhouse ales. This first entry in the series is a saison aged in white wine barrels with both brett and lacto, and the results are a joy. Funky, slightly barnyard aromatics give way to lots of oak and white wine/citrus, and a bit of herbal perfume. Tartness is moderate but gentle, with no harshness. Flavors offer a good mix of judicious oaky woodiness, citrus and a nice apricot-like stone fruit note. If Brew Gentlemen is able to make all of their future Mise en Rose entries on the same level as this one, it will soon be more than IPAs making their way across the country as trade bait.
City: Tourpes, Belgium
The verdict: The one, the only, it’s Saison Dupont. We were all extremely curious how the world’s most famous Belgian saison—really the style-definer in the eyes of most craft beer geeks—would fare in this kind of blind tasting setting, and we’re happy to report that Dupont passed with flying colors. It’s probably not surprising to say that there’s no mistaking this beer for any other beer style, because when most of us say “tastes like a saison,” we more or less mean “tastes like Saison Dupont.” Prickly, voluminous carbonation is a clear indicator of its Belgian origins, while the aroma gives us wafts of perfumey floral hops, slight banana esters, peppery spice and fresh cut grass. The malt backbone is clean as a whistle, with a finish that is quite dry and palate cleansing—as soon as you finish one sip, you’re ready for the next. It’s the quintessential example of classical saison for a reason to this day.
City: Tillamook, OR
The verdict: Credit to the couple of tasters at the table on this day who said there was something about this beer that reminded them on some level of an oud bruin, despite the lighter color—imagine their surprise in discovering that “oude” was indeed in the name. In reality, though, Oude Desay is a blend of three different years of oak barrel and oak tank-matured saison, and that imparts as much complexity as you would expect. This beer is very fruit forward—citrus and white grape, but also a strain of more unusual, red fruitiness, almost cherry or currant-like in nature that makes it quite unique. We also appreciate the malt character here—despite the fruit, and a significant charge of tartness, you never quite lose track of a grainy, rustic malt backbone. Totally blind, we would almost certainly have speculated that this was wine barrel aged, perhaps in red wine barrels, which would explain its unusual dark side. As is, we’re simply impressed by the expenditure of resources in combining three different vintages to create a superlative tart, wood-aged saison.
City: Nashville, TN
The verdict: Nashville’s Yazoo is a dark horse in these sorts of tastings who have surprised us a couple times in the past with really excellent sour offerings. Their Saison de Bois is, at heart, a very classic French saison that was then tucked away in oak puncheons for half a year. It emerges with a beautifully funky (and fresh) profile on the nose—lots of lemongrass, stone fruit and perhaps melon, along with some more barnyard qualities, but it leans in the direction of fruit overall. The wood isn’t too expressive, but the beer has a very pleasant, creamy texture, perhaps owing to the fact that there were some oats in the mash. From one score sheet: “Balanced tartness and yummy barnyard notes.” Yes, only in a style like saison do you see tasters write the likes of “yummy barnyard” as an average tasting note. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be impressed by how gentle the acidity is here, and how inherently drinkable it is as a result. Good stuff, coming out of Nashville.
City: Athens, OH
The verdict: We imagine that Jackie O’s is still probably coming down of the euphoria of coming in at #2 in our blind tasting of 144 barrel-aged imperial stouts back in February, but now it’s time to clear some more space on the mantle. This Ohio brewpub, long a favorite for collecting medals at competitions around the country, is making some seriously impressive sour beers these days. This one is bright, authoritatively tart and citrus-forward, basking in flavors of sweet Meyer lemon and exotic spice. Pillowy soft texture and plenty of carbonation enhance a backbone of bready, doughy malt, while a dry finish encourages each sip. From one score sheet: “Great mouthfeel on a totally refreshing beer. Love the citrus/hayloft aroma.” The brewery’s own description is spot on for this one: “A radiant saison full of crisp energy.” Truer words never spoken—especially in marketing copy.
City: Fort Collins, CO
The verdict: What’s this? A non-sour, non-barrel-aged, more or less classic Franco-Belgian saison in second place? We’re surprised too, but yep, that’s what happened. Of course, when you look at the accolades of FunkWerks’ farmhouse flagship, it becomes less surprising … you don’t win multiple GABF medals with the same beer on accident. The key on this one is an extremely assertive, complex Belgian yeast strain that is doing all the heavy lifting—this stuff is magical. Few saisons in the entire tasting were so tropical fruity in nature, to the point that you could be forgiven, upon smelling, if you thought this beer was loaded with some sort of tropical Australian or New Zealand hop strain. Instead, though, it seems to be primarily coming from the yeast, with tropical notes of passionfruit, pineapple and papaya, which gives way with great subtlety to an unmistakable finish of Belgian yeast-derived spice. That peppery/coriander-esque finish gives us structure; the framework of a great Belgian saison. As one score sheet says: “Straight up perfect saison.”
City: Asheville, NC
The verdict: We’ve known for a while now that eventually, Burial was going to win one of these tastings. Their batting average is almost always in the top tier; they’ve just been waiting for exactly the right category to spring something like this on us. If you haven’t had much of their beer, you may think of the brewery as something of an IPA factory, given that they seemingly have a new IPA every two weeks, or perhaps as the makers of Skillet Donut Stout, but there’s one other style that this popular Asheville destination produces in abundance, and that’s saison. Burial has made a staggering number of different saisons in the last few years, of every conceivable substyle.
This one, Separation of Light and Darkness, is a showpiece for both their brettanomyces and lactobacillus mixed culture as well as their skill with using hops as a finishing touch. Moderately tart, it’s quickly clear that this is a brett beer as well, as it puts forth a telltale funk that is earthy and almost slightly leathery. Of course, you’d really have to be searching to find either of those, because sweet-blooming citrus is the first thing you’ll get on the nose, which follows through onto the palate. Says one score sheet: “Amazing citrus aroma, and perfect acidity.” From another: “Funky, tart, citrus, peppery, wow.” From one more: “Just a clean, bright, hoppy, perfect saison.” And because someone will surely ask why the photographer chose to shoot only this one before pouring the beer, I can only say that your guess is as good as mine.
So there you have it. 116 saisons, come and gone, with Asheville, NC leading the way. Next up on the Paste docket, we’ll turn up the intensity of tartness and dive into some truly sour American wild ales. Check back in July—lord only knows how many we’ll receive this time.
Jim Vorel is a Paste Magazine staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter.