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PASTE MAGAZINE

Press Items

PASTE MAGAZINE

Chris Herron

BLIND-TASTING AND RANKING 35 OF THE BEST AMERICAN SAISONS

BY: JIM VOREL 

There are few things more beautiful in the world of beer than a perfectly crafted Franco-Belgian saison, and that’s a fact. It’s a style of subtleties—two people can both love the same saison, but for completely different reasons. Perhaps you look at a golden, cloudy saison with a puffy shock of long-lasting foam, inhale, and are enticed by a complex blend of hard-to-place spices and herbal influences. Perhaps you like your saisons tart and fruity, expressing their brettanomyces or lactobacillus to the fullest. Perhaps you like your saisons barrel-aged or fruit-infused. They’re all perfectly valid expressions of a style that works very well as a template for experimentation, which is exactly what you find in many American breweries.

As such, when we began gathering together the best American saisons we could lay our hands on, what we found was a huge degree of variation and uniquely produced beers. We had saisons infused with sour apple, peach and even cantaloupe. We had saisons aged in barrels of all description. And we had resplendent examples of classic Franco-Belgian dry saisons, no less complex and mind-blowing than their fancier cousins. We got the best of both—of all—worlds on this one.

You may be asking why we only went after American-made saisons, and it’s a valid question for this particular style. Paste’s style rankings have always had a prominent focus on the American craft brewing industry, and we have no intentions to change that. We know that the likes of Saison Dupont are classic for the genre, and it simply doesn’t seem necessary to rank what we all know is great. Likewise, there are so many Belgian breweries making impossible-to-get saisons that going down that rabbit hole would simply result in a list where every comment is “Y NO FANTOME, BRO?!?” We still expect most of the comments to end up exactly like that, but hey, at least we tried.

Rules and Details

  • As previously mentioned, this was a tasting and ranking of only American-made saisons. No Belgian or otherwise non-American beers were included. 
     
  • If you’re wondering why a brewery such as Hill Farmstead is missing, it’s probably because we tried and they either don’t ship beer or don’t want to participate in tastings. Or we forgot. But the former is more likely. 
     
  • Tastings were conducted over the course of two days, completely blind. Tasters included beer writers, brewery owners and beer website operators. 
     

The Field: Saisons #35-21

Most of these saisons were solid—like our recent tasting of 39 wheat beers, the overall quality level was quite high. In total, there were probably only two or three beers that we unanimously found objectionable for one reason or another. Many of these were solid, classical interpretations of the saison style that were simply lacking some x-factor or unique quality that would have helped them stand out or separate from the pack.

As has become our norm in beer tastings/rankings, the following beers in “the field” are simply listed alphabetically—they are not ranked, because these rankings are meant to be a celebration of the best beers, not a condemnation of beers where something may have gone wrong. We include them just so you can see everything that was part of the tasting. Once again, these are not ranked.

Aspen Brewing Co. Belgian Farmhouse Saison
Boulevard Brewing Co. Spring Belle
Clown Shoes Date Night Saison
Crux Fermentation Project Impasse Saison
DuClaw Brewing Co. X-10 Saison with Cantaloupe
Epic Brewing Co. Sour Apple Saison
Golden Road Brewing Saison Citron
Great Divide Brewing Co. Colette Farmhouse Ale
Jailhouse Brewing Co. Reprieve French-Style Ale
Lost Abbey Red Barn Ale
North Coast Brewing Puck
Orpheus Brewing Lyric Ale
Stillwater Classique
Terrapin Maggie’s Farmhouse Peach Saison
Victory Brewing Co. Helios Ale

Next: #’s 20-1, a winner is crowned

20. Lost Abbey Carnevale
City: San Marcos, CA
ABV: 6.5%
Key ingredient: Amarillo and Simcoe hops
The verdict: A saison that seems to represent the synthesis of multiple ideals, Carnevale is a couple things at once. On one hand, it has some of the biscuity, grainy malt of a classic Belgian saison, and a pinch of spice. It’s also very mildly tart, with a brett funk adding complexity. But there’s also plenty of reminder that we’re dealing with a West Coast brewery that knows how to handle its hops, which come through in the citrus presence of the amarillo in particular. You could call it a perfect example of a Californian saison.

19. 21st Amendment Brewery Sneak Attack
City: San Francisco, CA
ABV: 6.2%
Key ingredient: Whole cardamom pods
The verdict: A beer that certainly announces its presence when you stick your nose in the glass, 21st Amendment’s offering may have been the spiciest overall saison on the table, with peppery, tingling aromatics that almost remind one of the heat of chiles. It’s also spicy on the palate with somewhat different, more herbal character—several tasters actually noted “ginger” in their tasting notes on this one. Regardless, it was one of the more assertive classic-style saisons in the ranking, although slightly one-dimensional.

18. Urban Chestnut Apotheosis
City: St. Louis
ABV: 5.3%
Key ingredient: German malt and a French saison strain
The verdict: A well-balanced, classic French-style saison, Urban Chestnut’s saison features the thoughtful subtlety we’ve come to expect from their offerings. This is a very clean, archetypally sound saison, light-bodied but with a bit of nice doughiness from the wheat in the grain bill. It also has a pronounced lemony citrus note—not sure exactly where that one comes from, but the citrus pops just a little bit more than most of the saisons in the tasting. Light spiciness is also present in the finish.

17. Brooklyn Brewery Sorachi Ace
City: Brooklyn, NY
ABV: 7.2%
Key ingredient: Sorachi Ace hops
The verdict: The Japanese-developed Sorachi Ace hop strain is known for distinct lemongrass and dill aromas, which were noted by some tasters in Brooklyn’s already-classic saison of the same name. However, in addition to the herbaceousness, the hops also contribute a sort of white wine fruitiness—think like a zesty pinot grigio character, which helped this beer stand out in a jam-packed lineup of crazy flavors. You might even mistake it as having spent some time in neutral oak, even though it hasn’t. That speaks to its complexity.

16. 2nd Shift Brewing Mullineaux Batch #2
City: St. Louis, MO
ABV: 6%
Key ingredient: Farmhouse brettanomyces
The verdict: 2nd Shift, a brewery known for hoppy beer as much as wild ales, sent us two bottles of their Mullineaux farmhouse ale, with a twist—each batch was made with completely different yeast, and each resulting product turned out quite well. Batch #2 was the “farmhouse brett” version of Mullineaux, and it proved surprisingly different from the other bottle. Easily the more tart of the two, the mild sourness in this one particularly complemented its orange/lemon citrus characteristics as sourness often does, making them feel sweeter and juicier. Coupled with a peppery spice, it’s a fruity, flavorful saison that would be at home at the beer garden on a warm summer night.

15. Epic Brewing Co. Utah Sage Saison
City: Salt Lake City, UT
ABV: 7.5%
Key ingredient: Sage, thyme and rosemary
The verdict: This may be exactly the maximum amount of herbal flavor you can have in a beer while still remaining just on the right side of drinkability. Sage, as the name would suggest, is the biggest player in the aroma in particular, but thyme also contributes its savory quality and rosemary is there with a little bit of piney resin. It’s balanced on top of a solid, classic American take on a dry saison. In short, you’ll need to appreciate lots of herbal flavors to find this particular saison appealing, but if you’re say, the kind of person who keeps a garden, you may find it absolutely heavenly.

14. Allagash Brewing Co. Saison
City: Portland, ME
ABV: 6.1%
Key ingredient: A very traditional saison yeast strain
The verdict: One would probably expect a very traditional Belgian saison out of Allagash and boom, that’s pretty much what they deliver. To sample the score sheets: “very classic Belgian.” “Dry.” “For lovers of saison yeast.” As the tasters suggest, what you get here is classical and fairly restrained—quite dry, with a bit of lightly chewy malt, herbal hops and perfumey aromatics derived by both the hops and a collection of fruity esters. You could probably sneak it into a blind tasting lineup of saisons from Belgium and nobody would know it was the one American example on the table.

13. Firestone Walker Opal
City: Paso Robles, CA
ABV: 7.5%
Key ingredient: Hallertau Blanc hops
The verdict: Hugely different from a preceding beer such as the Allagash Saison, Firestone Walker’s offering is as American as it gets, with a cleaner yeast profile and much more focus on the hops. This is truly West Coast, dry-hopped saison, which makes for a pretty damn refreshing ale. The newer Hallertau Blanc variety is given a chance to shine here—as the name might suggest, it provides strong impressions of white wine-iness but also orange citrus—to quote one score sheet, “orangey and hoppy, almost like a pale ale.” From another, “nice balance of fruit and spice.” But there’s no mistaking where it came from.

12. 2nd Shift Mullineaux Batch 3
City: St. Louis, MO
ABV: 6%
Key ingredient: Classic Belgian saison yeast
The verdict: The batch #3 variation of 2nd Shift’s Mullineaux is more of a classic saison than the tart, citric batch #2, and was actually one of the best-balanced examples of a classic saison on the table. There’s still just a bit of tartness here, which pairs beautifully with aromas of hay and spice. Light citrus is also present—more lemon zest than orange juice this time—and lingering flavors of spice and farmhouse funk.

11. Crooked Stave Surette Provision Saison
City: Denver, CO
ABV: 6.2%
Key ingredient: Oak aging
The verdict: The bigger of two Crooked Stave saisons in the tasting, Surette may have been one of the funkiest things on the table. Yeast signatures and esters are extremely pronounced and complex—everything from “citrus” and “green apple” on score sheets to my personal favorite description, “buttery cookie.” Tartness is moderate, definitely making its lactic tang felt, as are flavors of oak, before the back end shows off some unexpectedly assertive grainy flavors that remind you this is still a rustic farmhouse ale you’re drinking. A nearly perfect example of an assertive, oak-treated saison.

10. Creature Comforts Dayspring
City: Athens, GA
ABV: 4.8%
Key ingredient: Wheat and brettanomyces
The verdict: This session strength saison is actually a grisette, a little-seen farmhouse ale substyle that seems to be moving into the vogue. We asked Creature Comforts if they would rather have us hold onto the lighter, lower-ABV beer to use for an upcoming tasting of low-gravity brews, but they were confident enough in their product to want it tasted right alongside barrel-aged saisons, and after tasting it, we could see why. There’s no shortage of funky flavors—enough that one taster’s notes say simply “so much brett,” next to a high score. Lightly tart, with herbal and biscuity qualities, this was one of a couple low-ABV beers to crack the top 10, proving that in this style, you don’t necessarily need a high ABV to make a strong impression.

9. Wild Heaven Craft Beers White Blackbird
City: Avondale Estates, GA
ABV: 6%
Key ingredient: Wine-marinated pears, pink peppercorn
The verdict: A touch darker than most of the other saisons, Wild Heaven’s White Blackbird comes in with a bit more richness and a combination of spice and fruity complexity. Both the marinated pears and pink peppercorn are very subtle flavor notes working in the background of what comes off as a fairly faithful, classic Belgian-style saison, imbuing it with a slight bit of tropical juiciness and exotic spice that you can’t quite put your finger on. Full disclosure: The owner of Wild Heaven was one of the tasters present for this blind tasting, and we disregarded his score for the sake of objectivity, even though he didn’t rate his own saison as the highest score on the table. This southern saison still managed to crack the top 10 anyway.

8. Epic Brewing Co. Straight Up Saison
City: Salt Lake City, UT
ABV: 7.3%
Key ingredient: Wheat malt, flaked oats
The verdict: If “clean” could be the operative word of any of these saisons, it would be this one—it manages to be both an “American” take on the style while also incorporating some of the aspects one sees in very rustic European saisons such as a blend of different grains. The oats lend just a little bit of silky texture, but it’s the well-balanced flavors that really stand out—slightly tart, citrusy and chased by peppery spice. Likely owing to the higher ABV, there’s even a little bit of rich, almost boozy sweetness, but it’s fleeting, and the beer still finishes dry as you would expect in a classic saison.

7. Crooked Stave Vielle Artisanal Saison
City: Denver, CO
ABV: 4.2%
Key ingredient: Neutral oak aging
The verdict: The little brother of the earlier Surette saison from Denver’s Crooked Stave, Vielle actually made an even bigger impression despite being 4.2% ABV. This moderately tart farmhouse ale punches way above its weight class in terms of flavor, with an intriguing collection of barnyard funk notes and sour fruit flavors—think green apple and lemon in particular. The tangy, acidic mouthfeel is refreshing but also gives it a feeling of weight and substance that would make you think it was several percentage points higher in ABV. The oak doesn’t show up in terms of “woody” flavors as much as it enhances the depth and bite of the fruity impressions to make a dangerously drinkable ale that straddles a border between saison and something like “American wild ale.”

6. Boulevard Brewing Co. Tank 7
City: Kansas City, MO
ABV: 8.5%
Key ingredient: Spicy esters
The verdict: If you want to point toward any mass-produced, widely available American farmhouse ale that helped the style really explode into popularity among the rank and file of American craft beer consumers, Boulevard’s Tank 7 would be an excellent example. It quickly became one of the company’s flagship offerings, cementing itself as a great example of an assertive, almost in-your-face American saison that doesn’t fool around with subtlety so much as it fires off a barrage of flavors. There are a lot of things going on here at once—citrusy American hops, some light funkiness, and then a big blast of peppery aromatics. Think like a tri-colored peppercorn grinder—very assertive spiciness and plenty of body make this a saison that would probably stand up very well to an equally big meal. Thanksgiving dinner, perhaps?

5. Brewery Ommegang Hennepin
City: Cooperstown, NY
ABV: 7.7%
Key ingredients: Grains of paradise, coriander, ginger
The verdict: Ommegang’s house yeast profile is so unique and identifiable that several tasters were able to call this one completely blind—it gives Hennepin a very assertive, phenolic, funk-forward nose. Certainly one of the most authentically Belgian-tasting on the table, Hennepin boasts strong and complex spice notes as well, owing to the addition of everything from grains of paradise to dried orange peel. In some sense, it’s almost a meeting point between classic saison and another beer from Ommegang in their “witte,” thanks to all of the spice additions. Regardless, this is a distinctly spicy, complex Belgian-style ale.

4. Prairie Artisan Ales Somewhere
City: Tulsa, OK
ABV: 7%
Key ingredients: Citrus fruit
The verdict: Lighter bodied than one would expect for 7% ABV, Prairie’s “Somewhere” is a moderately tart, refreshing, highly fruity blend of farmhouse ale and American sour. The aromatics are uniquely tropical, with a blast of melon and citrusy notes presumably imparted by the use of whole citrus fruit in the kettle. A detractor might accuse it of going a little one-note on tartness and fruit flavors, but we couldn’t deny how tasty this juicy sweet blend was. With more than a little residual sweetness, it manages to still be refreshing thanks to that solid backbone of sourness. Classic saison characteristics are tougher to pick up, with just a hint of spice and grain that can be perceived behind it all. Still, delicious stuff for lovers of fruity sours.

3. Side Project Brewing Saison Du Fermier
City: St. Louis, MO
ABV: 7%
Key ingredients: Chardonnay barrel aging
The verdict: When the box from St. Louis’ Side Project Brewing showed up, containing the #1 and #11 saisons in the world according to Beer Advocate, suffice to say we were excited to see where they would place in a blind ranking, and we were ultimately not disappointed. The bigger of the two, Saison Du Fermier, is an astoundingly complex ale aged for three to six months in chardonnay wine barrels, which give it pronounced fruity (white wine, lemon, apples), woody and spice notes on the back end. Tartness is strong and assertive, as are the flavors—this is a rich, heady take on saison that packs a depth of flavor we’ve rarely, if ever, seen before. Even among some of the other barrel-aged beers, its flavors surge ahead in comparison.

2. Prairie Artisan Ales, “Prairie Ale”
City: Tulsa, OK
ABV: 8.2%
Key ingredient: Flaked wheat, Saaz hops and three different yeast strains
The verdict: Prairie’s classic saison is a thoughtful masterpiece, a synthesis of so many different aspects of the brewer’s art. This is a beer made with a three-pronged mixture of ale yeast, brettanomyces and wine yeast, and that complexity can’t help but shine through from the first moment you inhale. The aroma is like a force field of perfumey esters—pear, stone fruit and your entire cabinet of spices. It’s 8.2%, yet still impossibly light and drinkable, not in the least bit cloying. One taster rated it a perfect 100, which is to my knowledge the only time this has happened in any of our blind tastings. From another score sheet: “The center of the bullseye.”

1. Side Project Brewing Saison Du Blé
City: St. Louis, MO
ABV: 6%
Key ingredient: Wheat and Chardonnay barrels
The verdict: When this blind tasting started, not a single judge in the room had ever sampled a beer from Side Project Brewing. A few of us had heard of the small, St. Louis nano-brewing project that operates out of the likewise respected Perennial Artisan Ales—the company is literally the “side gig” of Perennial head brewer Cory King. One could call it indicative of the increasing compartmentalization and specialization happening within craft brewing, where even guys with professional brewing jobs want to run separate companies with a laser tight focus on one facet of brewing—in this case, barrel-aged beer and sours. In that sense, Side Project is all about mastery of a chosen art form, and after tasting their two entries, we can’t dispute that their mastery is just about total.

Saison Du Blé is the smaller and slightly more traditional of the two farmhouse ales that Side Project submitted for the tasting, with a portion of wheat in the grist and a bit less sheer tartness than the Saison Du Fermier. There’s certainly no shortage of flavor, however, with a panoply of fruit notes that practically defy description—sour apple, grape juice, pineapple, grapefruit and more, all singing in concert. The tartness enhances fruit flavors but isn’t what one would call “sharp”—rather, it’s velvety smooth and supple, allowing you to get lost in the complexities of flavors.

If there’s anything that makes giving them the #1 spot slightly more difficult, it’s the fact that each batch of Saison Du Ble or Fermier is so individual and small, receiving constant tweaks, that if we ever get to sample it again, it may very well be a noticeably different beer. The flip side of this coin is that even if it is different, it will more than likely still be amazing—perhaps in an entirely new fashion. After tasting what we’ve tasted, we’re inclined to give Side Project the benefit of the doubt.