RALEIGH — Inside a back room Friday at Natty Greenes in Raleigh, brewer Thomas Vincent poured a glass of summer straight from a massive fermenting tank.
A hazy straw color with a distinct musky smell, the beer featured a slight tartness and peppery tickle that finishes crisply effervescent. A perfect tasting for the first day of summer.
One sip of a saison (pronounced say-zon) challenges your conceptions about beer and quenches an appetite for something more dynamic than a canned light lager on a hot, humid southern afternoon. Its a style well suited for the North Carolina craft beer scene but surprisingly under-appreciated.
Saison is a popular category for brewers, but as to the public, its an education, Vincent said. Its got a name that is a little more unusual. Its got a funk and spice character that is a little challenge to the palate.
Originating in the French-speaking southern region of Belgium, a saison is often known as a farmhouse ale, a reference to the farmers who would brew it to cool their field workers in a time when clean drinking water was harder to find.
As a category, saison is hard to define. The traditional light-bodied, low-alcohol farmers brew is being reinterpreted in fascinating ways, often with a wild character. The fact that no two saisons are alike only makes it more interesting to explore the style.
When you look at most other styles, there are specific boundaries that you stick to, said Ben Woodward at Haw River Farmhouse Ales, a new brewery opening this year in Saxapahaw dedicated to the style. With a saison its really open ended. ... I think part of the style is you need to explore it and get a little crazy with it.
At Natty Greenes, Vincent kept his Farmstead Saison simple and used his German brewing system the copper kettles visible from the brew pubs restaurant to keep it authentic.
I like to go back and look at the history and see where I want to begin and where it leads me, said Vincent, a former brewer at Big Boss in Raleigh, where Monkey Bizz-Ness is one of the best local farmhouse-styled Belgian beers.
For this recipe, he thought, let the beer speak for itself.
Its like cooking, he said. A lot of the best chefs will tell you, let the ingredients shine through.
In a saison, the key ingredient is the yeast. At higher fermentation temperatures Vincent let his get to an uncommon 90 degrees it produces spicy esters, or the funky flavors from yeast that give it the special touch. Vincent used spelt grain to give it a light tang and other brewers will add spices and a sour yeast to amp the taste.
The styles complexity draws beer enthusiasts, but increasingly newcomers to craft beer drinkers also are taking note.
Jason Kaczor at Ridgewood Wine and Beer in Raleigh said the popularity is growing and the fruity, spicy tastes make it appealing to a larger audience. He recommended starting with the standard-bearer, Saison Dupont from Belgium.
At tastings, Woodward said the appeal extends to non-beer drinkers.
A lot of people who come up and say they dont like dark beer, he explained. But if you hand them particularly something on the lighter side like a saison, it kind of opens their eyes, sort of challenges their notions of what beer can be.
What Im tasting
Before leaving Natty Greenes last week, I tried the Lexington India pale ale, an homage to the states barbecue landmark city. Made at the brewerys Greensboro pub, the India pale ale is dry-hopped with peaches and made with smoked malt to give it a barbecue touch.
By now, weeks after it debuted, the smell of peaches hits first but the smoke flavor is taking control. For barbecue fans, even those like me who are partial to eastern North Carolina style, its a good pairing to any chopped plate. Stats: 6.8 percent ABV; pints $4.
Contact John at 919-829-4698 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ByJohnFrank.