My Introduction to Saisons

"I can think of few beer styles that give me more pleasure here on earth.  Crisp yet substantial, fragrantly hoppy, but underlain with a delicate maltiness, it maintains a hair's breadth balance among its many aspects.  Hovering between weak and strong, hoppy and malty, spiced and straightforward, this beer is what you find in it, always adding up to a harmonious whole." — Randy Mosher, Radical Brewing

Saisons are new to me.  So I was excited to attend Cascade Brewing's Saison Festival.  Imagine that—a festival dedicated to this style!  Only in Portland.  But first, what is a Saison?  The style originated in Belgium and was brewed to hydrate farm workers.  Pilsner malts provide the base, hop flavors are noticeable—but not aggressive, and spice flavors are present.  The last big of magic is provided by a Saison yeast strain.

Eighteen variations of the Saison style were served at the festival.  I sampled 7 of them.  Here they are in the order I tasted them.  Descriptions in italics were provided on the beer menu.

  • Brasserie Dupont, Saison Dupont (6.5% ABV):  Known as THE classic of the style, Men's Journal named Saison Dupont as the Best Beer in the World in 2005.  I started the afternoon with the King of Saisons to calibrate my palate.  I noticed a peppery aroma and a funkiness, but I didn't get the "horse blanket" mentioned on description.  Thankfully.  It had citrus flavors and finished dry.  A nice beer, but it didn't rock my world.
  • Breakside Brewery, Breakside Amarillo Saison (5.2% ABV):   I looked forward to tasting this because it had Brettanomyces.  A nice apricot aroma was the high point.  Mid-taste, I was hit by a flavor I had a hard time describing.  I shared my drink with a few others as we struggled to find the appropriate adjective.  Soapy, medicinal, and Band-Aid all came up.  Whatever it was, it wasn't good and I committed a heart-wrenching act—I dumped my beer.  However, the mystery flavor would not be denied.  It lingered...
  • Cascade Brewing,  Saison 10 (6.8% ABV):  After a glass of water to rid prior unwanted flavors, I found my favorite of the day.  "This aged version of Cascade's farmhouse Saison is a little drier on the palate, and the spices come together to bring a slight burn to the taste buds." I liked its tart kick.  
  • Block 15 Restaurant & Brewery,  Hatter's Riddle (6% ABV).  This has dandelion root and two mystery ingredients. "...brewed with Saaz hops and a blend of French & Belgian Farmhouse yeasts."  Another solid offering from Block 15.
  • Oakshire Brewing,  Frederic's Lost Arm (5.5% ABV).  "...crafted with Iron Goddess Green Oolong Tea. Frederic begins with deep fruit aromas of bananas and pineapple..."  The tea flavor was very subtle, as I didn't pick up much of it.
  • Cascade Brewing, Saison Minuit (6.7% ABV).  "Cascade's spin on the classic farmhouse black Saison.  Sweet malts, vintage hops, chocolate and spices on the palate give way to a soft hint of smoke, milk chocolate, and a slight lingering spice burn..."  This was the most different from the others I tasted, and I liked the twist provided by the dark malts.
  • Two Rivers Cider Co, Cider Saison (8.0% ABV).  "This dry, slightly sour Saison-style cider was aged in French and American oak for six months."  The beer was starting to taste the same, so I used my last token on a cider.  I'm glad I did.  It was bone dry, had a spicy aroma and flavor, and the alcohol was not noticeable.  I was impressed by how the saison yeast worked in this cider.  I plan to make a cider in the fall and will consider using a saison yeast.

I've visited a few style-specific festivals recently, and enjoyed the great diversity within the highlighted style.  However, I was surprised by how similar these saisons tasted.  They all had subtle variations, but tasted essentially the same (exception noted above) to my amateur palate.  Perhaps the style does not allow much leeway.  Anyway, I learned that Saisons are not my favorite style.

Finally, a big round of kudos to the Cascade crew!  I attended their Scottish Ale Fest a few months ago.  The beer was great, but it was VERY crowded and congested.  It's obvious the organizers took notes and made improvements.  They moved the band outside into a spacious tent and added a second serving line near the front of the building.  This greatly improved traffic flow and decreased line length and wait times.  I look forward to Cascade's next festival!  I'm hoping for a Sour Fest.  Please... 

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