The most influential beer in the saison tradition—the archetype—is Saison Dupont. This is thanks to the brewery that kept it going, but it’s also thanks to writers such as Michael Jackson and to U.S. importers who gave it a lifeline when Belgians were drinking very little of it. It helps, a lot, that it’s a fantastic beer—dry, highly drinkable, complex, and surprisingly hoppy when fresh.
Dupont also is what most influenced Blaugies’ Saison d’Epeautre in character—to us, a true classic, but this brewery on the French border has really only been around since 1988. Another beauty in this vein worth mentioning—brewed just on the other side of that border, and only about seven miles away—is the Cuvée des Jonquilles from Au Baron. Recently, more established Belgian breweries have seen that saison can sell, and they have brewed examples closer to Dupont’s tradition than anything else. These include lively Saison Surfine from Dubuisson—highly carbonated, with meringue-like foam that will remain on Earth long after humans are extinct. Softer but still pleasant examples include St-Feuillien Saison in nearby Le Roeulx and Saison 1858 from du Bocq in Namur province. Also worth noting here is Flemish-brewed, tissue-wrapped Saison d’Erpe-Mere from Glazen Toren—stronger and a touch sweeter than Dupont but with extra-lively sparkle that seems to help dry it. These beers are unspiced, however spicy they might taste.
However, a totally different interpretation is alive and well, only about five miles from Dupont and in Dubuisson’s own Pipaix backyard. At the steam-powered relic Brasserie á Vapeur, the Saison de Pipaix is tart and spiced with ginger, orange peel, star anise, and lichen. (That’s right: lichen. This beer includes a symbiote.) Out east in Luxembourg province, another brewery well-known to American belgophiles follows a similarly wild and woolly path: Fantôme, in Soy, produces a variable “saison” that tends to be both microbiologically odd and spiced or flavored with various things.
So, if that’s the canon, let’s look a bit closer at new directions in which Belgian saison has gone in recent years. After all, it’s not only American brewers who have taken the story and run with it. Briefly, here are several newer interpretations and what makes them tick.
De Ranke Saison de Dottignies: This is saison done the De Ranke way, which means 100 percent whole-flower hops, all locally grown in nearby Warneton, including Hallertauer Mittelfrüh and Styrian Golding. It’s 5.5 percent ABV and leans bitter—about 45 IBUs.
Blaugies La Vermontoise: What began as a collaboration with Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead has since become a regular for Blaugies and one of its most popular beers. It’s a spelt-based saison of 6 percent ABV, not unlike Saison d’Epeautre, but with a citrus boost from plenty of U.S.-grown Amarillo hops.
Jandrain-Jandrenouille IV Saison: Situated in a genuine old farmhouse in Wallonian Brabant, the brewer’s day job is exporting Yakima Chief hops to Europe and beyond. Much like La Vermontoise, the IV Saison uses citrus-forward American hops but maintains Belgian balance and panache.
The Saison(s) de la Senne: Yvan De Baets’ own Brussels brewery has interpreted saison in several different ways, based both on his research as well as new hops, new ideas, and his own tastes. Most often they’ve incorporated ample Noble hops and Senne’s signature stamp of high yet smooth bitterness, as with Saison du Meyboom. A more recent take is bitter, dry-hopped, and Brett-driven Saison van de Bruwer, brewed with spelt and checking in at 5.3 percent ABV and 60 IBUs.
Minne Ardenne Saison: Brewed in the Ardennes and dry-hopped with Hallertauer and Cascade, this bitterish and bright but earthy, funk-forward saison is refermented with a Brettanomyces strain first harvested from the skins of local apples.
Hof ten Dormaal Lauwendries Saison: A bit of a throwback here, since the brewery is part of a working farm, this beer of 5.8 percent ABV is brewed with hops and grain—including spelt, wheat, oats, and rye—grown right on the farm. The barley goes to Dingemans and comes back malted, while the raw grains get a fairly cool overnight cereal mash that might explain the light, lemony lactic notes.
Bokke Zomersaison: Pushing the boundaries, the Limburg blender likes to mix Fantôme saison with Girardin lambic of different ages and see what happens. What happens, as it turns out, is pretty beautiful. Good luck finding a bottle.