Pintful: Summer is the season to try a saison

john.frank@newsobserver.comJune 25, 2013 

  • What’s On Tap Freedom IPA Release Party

    Wednesday at Natty Greene’s Brewing, 505 W. Jones St., Raleigh

    The brewery’s most popular seasonal beer hits taps this week and debuts with live music at the Raleigh location. The American-style India pale ale is well-hopped at 89 IBU but not too big at 6.5 percent ABV. Get it now through October. Info: nattygreenes.com Lonerider Release Party

    5 p.m. Wednesday at the brewery’s taproom, 8816 Gulf Court, Suite 100, Raleigh

    The new Hangman Barley Wine from Lonerider Brewing features twice the malt, hops and yeast compared to the average ale. It debuts at the Hideout, the brewery’s taproom. Info: loneriderbeer.com.

    Sourfest

    Thursday at Busy Bee Cafe, 225 S. Wilmington St., Raleigh

    Once the purview of bottles, sour beers are getting a tap showoff at the craft beer bar and restaurant in downtown Raleigh. More than a dozen sour beer kegs will fill the lines, including a few select offerings, such as Thirsty Dog’s Cerasus Flanders and Bruery’s Sour in the Rye. Info: busybeeraleigh.com.

— Inside a back room Friday at Natty Greene’s 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. It’s 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, it’s an education,” Vincent said. “It’s got a name that is a little more unusual. It’s 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 farmer’s 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 it’s really open ended. ... I think part of the style is you need to explore it and get a little crazy with it.”

At Natty Greene’s, Vincent kept his Farmstead Saison simple and used his German brewing system – the copper kettles visible from the brew pub’s 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.”

“It’s 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 style’s 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 don’t 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 I’m tasting

Before leaving Natty Greene’s last week, I tried the Lexington India pale ale, an homage to the state’s barbecue landmark city. Made at the brewery’s 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, it’s a good pairing to any chopped plate. Stats: 6.8 percent ABV; pints $4.

Contact John at 919-829-4698 or jfrank@newsobserver.com. On Twitter @ByJohnFrank.

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