Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Time of the saison for loving

A few years ago, it seemed poised to become a permanent fixture within the standard brewpub repertoire. And while that hasn't quite happened (although I never thought I'd see the day when one would win a "best beer in the world" competition), it's certainly established itself among the seasonal varieties that even the most cookie-cutter of craft breweries have on the back side of their menus, alongside the summer hefewiezen, the autumn Oktoberfest, and the winter doppelbock. And that's all and good, because you know what? It's spring now. And I'm pretty amenable to the idea of taking these three months to give homage to that salt-of-the-earth, farmhouse funky, rustic piece of folk brewing art: the saison*.

An excellent guide for saison appreciation, Phil Markowski's Farmhouse Ales, distinguishes saison as one of the two major subsets of of north European rustic ales, the other being the French bière de garde, a distinction that oenophiles would appreciate as it's based almost primarily on terroir, being a style that's inherently married to the land. The big downer though, for those of us who have a romantic penchant for seasonal, hand-crafted, mutable and airily shifting farmhouse creations that bend to the will of the harvest and to the experimental nature of the brewer, is that what used to be a truly rustic, wild-as-you-want style has been all but pigeonholed into a very specific set of guidelines. Granted, those guidelines are awfully fun to explore within - the archetype of the modern style, Saison Dupont is quite extraordinary - but isn't it fun to color outside the lines once in a while? What were those pre-WWII saisons of the Wallonian countryside like when the "market" for these recipes were the families, friends and odd visitors to the farms on which they were brewed?

Enter wild nonconformist Dany Prignon and his equally wild and nonconforming Fantôme brewery from Soy, Belgium. With recipes that change like the wind blows and a smirkingly secretive approach to unorthodox brewing ingredients, there aren't too many brewers out there whose work captures the "seasonal-ness" of saison like Fantôme (even were you to exclude the series of beers they actually name after the four seasons). A good way to gauge the inconsistency between batches of his beers, you have only to try to read through the reviews posted on a ratings site like BeerAdvocate or Rate Beer, wherein you'll find out that the particular beer pictured above, La Dalmatienne (labeled a "blonde" on the bottle) is overtly malty and sweet, yet really dry, funky and tart, deep brown and simultaneously light golden, tasting like an orange, or a lemon, or like apples, or maybe even like dirt. And those tasting notes are probably all right on the nose, as over the years, I'm sure it's been all of these things. [This bottle, in case you were wondering, was just right! Seriously, though...] What would be seen as a terminal flaw at any major brewery is here considered a charming personality trait - it's Mr. Prignon's unpredictability and ceaseless creativity that's earned him his enviable reputation.

Within the somewhat more straight-laced vein of saison brewing, though, there are many quite nice and far more available options. But maybe as springtime is a time of change, revelation and splendor, maybe it is the season in which to experience something virtually unanticipatable:
A little madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown,
Who ponders this tremendous scene—
This whole experiment of green,
As if it were his own!

- Emily Dickenson

*Bruce Paton has a nice piece about saison as the beer for summer, so rather than split hairs, why don't we just call it the beer from March to September?



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