While Farmhouse Ale has become synonymous with Saison, it is actually a category within which two styles reside: Saison and Bière de Garde.
Saison – French for “season”– was a beer made as a refreshment for farm workers during the warm summer months. With its origins in the French-speaking Belgian region of Wallonia, Saisons were brewed in the winter, with cooler temperatures more desirable for fermentation. Brewers would use whatever was on hand at the farm to make the beer, meaning the beer often varied widely from one farm to the next. In a way, the vast variety within the style of Saison at present is just a nod to its roots!
Generally speaking, Saisons showcase a dry, rustic finish, relatively high carbonation, with citrus and spice notes and a moderate hop profile. However, nowadays you’ll find sour, funky Brettanomyces, dry-hopped, and even fruited Saisons.
The popularity of Saisons in American craft brewing took off after Two Roads Brewing brewmaster Phil Markowski wrote his book, Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition, in 2004. A book highly recommended if you’re a Saison Geek!
Saison Dupont Vielle Provision, brewed by Brasserie Dupont in Tourpes, Belgium, is widely regarded as the benchmark of the style. Well-known American versions of the style include Boulevard Tank 7, Allagash Saison, Great Divide Colette, Brooklyn Sorachi Ace and North Coast le Merle. Boulevard adds brettanomyces to Tank 7 to make its Brett Saison, a popular annual release.
Another beautiful aspect of Saison is its ability to pair easily and excellently with just about any food. Nearly all Saisons have enough body to stand up to the hearties of dishes but, thanks to its dry and effervescent properties, doesn’t overpower lighter fare.
Bière de Garde – which loosely translates to “beer for keeping”– is a more malt-forward style that originated in Northern France. Traditionally, this beer is lagered (cold-conditioned). This process gives Bière de Garde its more malty, rounded character, and removes some of the spicy, fruity, and yeasty notes that we get from the warm fermentation of a Saison. Some brewers will use an actual lager yeast for Bière de Garde.
Markowski writes: “Saison is the more charismatic of the two, outgoing and quick to get your attention. Bière de Garde is the quiet cousin – it takes time to get to know and appreciate its charms.”
Somehow or another, Chicago seems to be a hub for this somewhat-hard-to-find beer style. When Cruz Blanca (Famed Mexican chef Rick Bayless’ brewpub in the West Loop) opened in 2016, it was with three takes on the lightly-sweet-meets-dry French Bière de Garde style as flagships (none are left on the 2018 menu, in case you were wondering.) But also coming out of the Windy City are Domaine DuPage from Two Brothers, Rubriq-a-brac from Whiner, and Le Woof from Off Color (all with some distribution outside the Chicago area). Louisiana’s Bayou Teche brewing also makes LA 31 Acadie and Durham, NC’s Ponysaurus makes an excellent Bière De Garde. Classic examples are Ch’Ti (brown and blond), Jenlain (amber and blond), La Choulette (all 3 versions), St. Amand (brown), and Saint Sylvestre 3 Monts (blond).