Category: Beer Reviews

‘Tis the Saison

Saison, my favorite summertime beer. “It’s a versatile style,” says Ron Jeffries. He’s made rose-hued hibiscus saisons, barrel-aged sour saisons, and roasty, black saisons, to name a few. Stillwater adds sage and other herbs; Stone/Dogfish Head/Victory use the Paul Simon blend. “There aren’t really any rules. Just keep it light, dry, and a little bitter to be more refreshing: A beer you can have a couple glasses of.”

Saisons are easy drinking, brewed crisp and relatively weak so farmers could knock back their per diem at lunch and stay sober enough to swing a scythe. But they don’t skimp on flavor like other so-called lawnmower beers—saisons can be spicy or mellow, rich as whole-grain bread or airy as champagne. Saisons are a beer-maker’s beer, the secret darling of an industry agog over the big and boozy. Ask even the most extreme craft brewer what they think drank with last night’s dinner, and chances are good they’ll drop their eyes and say, “well, saison.” Why did David Logsdon, founder of Full Sail Brewing and the Wyeast brewing yeast company, after twenty-plus years in the biz, move back to the family orchard-cum-cattle ranch to perfect this one style of beer? “I brew saisons because that’s what I like to drink,” he said. Complex enough to keep the pros busy, but rustic enough for the workaday masses, saisons are blue-collar beer done right: all flavor, no pretense, a picnic in a bottle.

We tasted some at a recent beer club, and these are the best we found:

Jolly Pumpkin Bam Bière
Foamy, fresh, and cheek-suckingly tart, this one actually seems to make you thirstier.

Logsdon Seizoen
True to the style’s name, David Logsdon brews his extra-spicy saisons on the family farm, and feeds the used grain to his Scottish highland cattle. This one tastes like a barn on fire: smokey wood and chewy, wet hay.

Yards Saison
Slightly sweet with a bright citrus tang, this picnic-worthy Philly brew is pure summertime, like fizzy orange soda.

Stillwater Stateside Saison
Another new brewery specializing in farmhouse ales, Stillwater makes a beguiling, sage-spiced saison and this unspiced version, smooth, lush, and tropical.

North Coast La Merle
What starts floral and effervescent, like a chilly white wine, finishes with a blooming, fruity fullness.

Big Beers

I’d already written about celebratory homebrew (that wasn’t so celebratory), so for the holidays I decided to go with something more reliable, albeit less historic: giant beer bottles. My picks were arranged, in the paper at least, from smallest to most monumental. Fin du Monde, a house favorite and plenty punchy, seems featherweight compared to Stone’s Double Bastard, which comes in a three-liter totem, complete with a padlocked swing-top cap. You know, so you can’t sneak in a midnight tipple. I thought about sabering off the cap, like they did in the Times, but I didn’t want to waste a drop. This is beer, after all, not Champagne.

Oktober’s Best

Oktoberfest is over. First on the list of things most people don’t know about Oktoberfest (what the lids on steins are for, what a Märzen is) is the fact that it ends on the first weekend in October. Time to start training for next year.

Märzens, the official beer of the festival, brewed in March and aged cool until the fall, are still for sale, though. Here are the best of the Fest.

Black, Light

My high school drama teacher loved Goethe (whose didn’t?) and so I avoided both of them. I didn’t know Young Werter was a beer snob. He got sick in law school and recovered, the story goes, with Schwarzbier. Tipsy and atrophied, he became a writer instead. Some bottles of Köstritzer have a picture of him on the label, pensive, opulently hatted, sudsy glass Photoshopped into his hand.

Follow his example: Drink black lager. I picked the best in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal.

BBQ Beers

I’ve been known to fire up the grill on Christmas, so for me, outdoor cooking knows no seasonal bounds. Still, summertime grilling, and drinking, are institutions, at least in newspaper food sections. And so I wrote about them.

First, for Bon Appetit, I subjected a friend’s dinner party to the spectacle of beer-can chicken. When I say use indirect heat, I mean it. Beer will bubble out of the bird, and all over the coals. One trip to the fridge, and your chicken’s on fire. It’s a spectacle, like I said.

But what to drink while aimlessly poking the grill? I stocked the Wall Street Journal‘s ice bucket with lighter fare (a Dortmunder, a pale, a saison), the all-rounder Brooklyn Brown, and, for those whose burger is naked without bacon, a smoky rauchbier. I even got to drink some Hennepin on camera while Skyping into the Journal‘s afternoon news show. When you’re serving beer-can chicken, lingcod, steak, sea urchin, and roasted prince mushrooms, it’s good to stock a versatile bar.

Bull Session

My Wall Street Journal story on session beers got a bit of flack from people arguing that “true” session beers must be less than 5.0% ABV. As evidence, they cited their own blog manifestos. The 5.0 argument is, at best, supported by a dubious CDC definition of a “standard beer” as 5.0% ABV, and at worst, totally arbitrary. There’s nothing standard about craft beer. The average ABV rating of all 30,000 beers on Beer Advocate is almost 6.0%. No brewer I’ve ever talked to designs so-called session beers with any such guidelines. If the brewers don’t care, why should you? Arguing that a delicious 5.1% beer can’t be called a session beer, but a 5.0% one can, is a waste of precious drinking time. And session beers, if they’re about anything, are about drinking.