Saison & Funk: A Plea For Moderation

Farmhouse brewing is a huge barn, with room for all sorts of creatures. How many of them, though, help you make really drinkable beer? Here, Drew Beechum lays out a path toward restraint.

Drew Beechum Jun 11, 2020 - 11 min read

Saison & Funk: A Plea For Moderation Primary Image

In an issue largely dedicated to funk, I’m afraid I must serve as a Debbie Downer—a naysayer of wild craziness in the world of my favorite styles—the saisons and the farmhouse ales. And before folks point to the ever-reliable monster fermentor of beers—the various French saison strains on the market—just know that I find most beers made with them to be stultifyingly dull.

But American brewers, being American brewers, usually err on the side of exuberance, not dullness. We tend to drive everything with a rocket booster of flavor instead of soothing with subtlety.

I’m not talking about the multitude of flavored saisons—your blackberry, ginger, hibiscus, chocolate, tequila-barrel–aged beers. Those might be bad ideas, but I like to see new ideas—even if just to prove that I’m right about them being bad ones.

It is the overexpression of funk that has me wary of most saisons and farmhouse ales I try out there. It’s the big bump of Brettanomyces, the tangy creep of lactic acid; not to mention the vinegar burn of acetic acid. It’s the distractions from all things saison, and the promotion of all things wild.

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There is a split in the world of saisons—one simultaneously historic and ahistoric. We know that the romantic story of farm workers slaking their thirst with beer brewed especially for that purpose is mostly bunk. We know that what we know as saison is largely the result of Brasserie Dupont. But we also know that there was a whole world of small white beers that must have been something like petit lambic. And now we see the world of Norwegian farmhouse traditions, which have encouraged people to abandon all notions of temperature control.

“Clean” Saison

Unsurprisingly, I’m a huge fan of the “clean” saisons, as exemplified by Dupont. My house beer—Saison Experimentale—is a light, crisp, and never-boring beer, thanks to the impressive phenol and ester expression of most saison strains. I’ve only ever hit it with Brett a few times in its 15 years of existence.

When you taste Dupont’s beers—exemplars of the modern saison—you’ll notice that the yeast character is complex, with spice and fruit notes galore in beers that finish dry. They flash Noble-hop character with enough oomph to be interesting without clashing.

I think back to the bottles of the Deux Amis collaboration done between The Lost Abbey and Dupont. That beer was the regular Dupont recipe and house culture dosed with Tomme Arthur’s choices in American hops. I stashed a few bottles away, and over time the beer became drier and distinctly earthier. It also demonstrated that with a judicious hand, American hops and Belgian yeast phenols can work together.

There is no Brett in Saison Dupont, but it can give that impression as it evolves with time in the bottle. While my perception of Brett in the beer is dubious, I do detect the complexity of a mixed-yeast culture—more than one strain of yeast. When tasting beers made with White Labs WLP565 Belgian Saison I and Wyeast 3724 Belgian Saison—their “Dupont” strains—I perceive White Labs’ to be more fruit-forward, with cherries and a stronger malt presence, while Wyeast’s has more spicy phenolics, with cinnamon, clove, and black pepper, with a softer malt note. This is why I love to pitch both in an effort to gain a more complete profile.

Many brewers fear the dreaded “saison stall” seen with these strains. Your fermentation goes gangbusters for a day or two, and then all activity stops for two to three weeks. I’ve done experiments that give credence to these strains’ preference for open fermentation. Give your yeast room to breathe. Dupont uses large squarish fermentors with plenty of air space. For homebrewers, just slap aluminum foil over your fermentor instead of an airlock during primary fermentation. Once the active fermentation dies down, safeguard your beer with an airlock.

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Funky Farmhouse

Does this mean everyone making super-funkified ales is a bad brewer and should be castigated? Not even close. One of my primary loves, frustrations, and inspirations in the playful world of saison is the tiny, odd powerhouse known as Fantôme. If there’s any brewery that rides the line of interesting, over-the-top, and maddening/fascinating inconsistency, it’s them.

Like Dupont, Fantôme starts with an ostensibly clean yeast culture, but between the open fermentors (when I visited, brewer Dany Prignon was using simple steel wine tanks with lids seated on top, but not sealed), the open buildings (drafts easily flow through the roof eaves), and the botanical additions (dandelions, for instance)—there are a number of ways that funkifying organisms could find their way into the beers. Over time, some critter that produces a distinct strawberry note—something wild and crazy—has crawled in. I’ve never found it commercially.

And this is a key for me—many of the funkier farmhouse ales I prefer started with what they have in the air around them as opposed to a lab culture. Bob Sylvester of Saint Somewhere Brewing in Tarpon Springs, Florida, starts with a house culture that’s pretty clean and lets the ambient funk of his space go to work. He uses the same type of flat-top wine tanks I saw at Fantôme. He keeps his culture clean of extraneous critters with routine yeast washing. The ambient culture is so important to the nature of his beers that when he moved to his second location, he overbuilt the roof with extra wood trusses and hosed the whole space down with beer brewed at his original site.

Something about the coastal air of Tarpon Springs works magic in his brews. He believes his to be a mixed culture of more than Brettanomyces, and he points to Orval, which is dosed with Brett in the secondary, as a beer that doesn’t scream funk. (Young Orval reads spicy to me, and some of that may be from the aggressive dry hopping.) Sylvester also believes that the mixed culture is the reason his beers taste different from so many of the aged farmhouse ales that use cultured strains.

Blending

If you don’t have a tried-and-true ambient culture, what are you to do? Blend!

Near Asheville, North Carolina, sits Zebulon Artisan Ales, run by long-time brewer Mike Karnowski. For his wilder ales, Karnowski doesn’t try to keep the funk down during fermentation. For a cleaner, mellow Brett character, he recommends reaching for Brettanomyces claussenii, which is spicy and tropical, not deep and earthy.

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Karnowski prefers to control the overall read of the beer by blending with a cleaner beer. Naturally this will change with age over time as the funky agents have time to act on residual sugars and starches (and other things you wouldn’t think are edible). In other words, brew two beers and bring them together in a blend.

Blending is a powerful tool. No matter how good a brewer you are, the funkier fermentations are magical and unpredictable. Master brewers such as Vinnie Cilurzo of Russian River know the power and character found in their cellar space, and they blend accordingly. Rather than roll the dice in the fermentor, they use a vintner’s skill in picking individual elements and bringing them together to produce a harmonious beer. It does require having multiple beers on hand, and a willingness to sit down and carefully portion each one to find the golden ratio. It might be 35 percent of Beer One and 50 percent of Beer Two and that last little 15 percent of a third beer, which leaves you with leftover beer… but that just means you need to brew more.

This is how a brewery such as the Rare Barrel in Berkeley works—they have multitudes of beers ready to bring together. Blending is an art form of its own, and I think it’s the surest way to get a beer that is funky but respects the saison flavor profile.

Simple Is as Simple Does

Isn’t there a simpler way you may ask? In exploring the use of pure-culture Brettanomyces, these are my simple rules: For a milder Brett character, pitch the Brett at the same time as your regular yeast. In this co-pitch situation, Brett expresses less of the nominally funky flavors. It’s counterintuitive, but experience and science back it up. One of the cleanest Brett beers I ever had was a 100-percent pure pitch of B. claussenii—no regular yeast. (The converse also applies—for more funk, pitch the Brett in secondary, and wait.)

Pitching rate does not matter in the long run. I used to advocate for a smaller pitch of bugs to try to control the final product, but studies indicate that in the end, Brett will be Brett no matter how much you change the pitch. (Think of a keg in long storage with just a bare smidge of contaminant, and you’ll understand.)

More sorts of bugs—to an extent—are better. Take a cue from the ambient brewers. Pitch multiple types of critters into the beer. Use the dregs from a favorite beer. If you want to play safely with an ambient pitch, set out mason jars filled with wort and covered with cheesecloth overnight and let your air inoculate the wort. Let the wort begin to ferment and take samples. When you find one that works (expect many not to work), you have a base culture you can pitch into wort. This works especially well around fruit trees.

There you have it. While I’m ultimately a clean-saison kind of guy, I can dig the funk when appropriately controlled.

Photos: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

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