Saisons for Every Season

Martin Johnson - Saisons are more than summer beers.

When I was introduced to saisons, I thought they were light and refreshing, a perfect summer brew. My mentor told me that he loved them year round, but I wrote that off as one of his quirks. Now, I have come around to seeing his point. Light and refreshing yes, but saisons are substantial enough to warrant drinking all year round.

My mentor at the time was Ray Deter, the late owner of the great beer and spirits bar d.b.a. He and Dennis Zentek founded d.b.a in Manhattan in the early 90s when few had heard of the idea of a craft beer bar. Their motto was Drink Good Stuff and it applied both to their beers, and whiskeys which were lovingly catalogued on more than a dozen blackboards at their bar. 

It was the sort of place where, if you ordered a Bud Light, the bartender would gently explain that you might like a Pilsner and pour you a sample. As people became more aware of craft beer, the bar's popularity skyrocketed and they opened in New Orleans. In 2007, they opened a branch in Brooklyn and a year later, I approached them about doing cheese and beer pairings there. Ray loved the idea but he had one condition. Each event had to include Saison Dupont, as it was his favorite beer. I didn't know Saison Dupont at the time, so he ran to the bar, grabbed a bottle and two glasses. I had already made up my mind that I liked the stuff, but the flavor, breezy with distinctive notes of grapefruit zest and honeydew melon sold me. I agreed immediately. The intense fizz would make it the ideal companion to soft buttery cheeses.

For the next three years until Ray tragically died in a bike accident, I would show up at the bar the day before the event with samples of my chosen cheeses and Ray would bounce around the bar, finding what he thought was the perfect beer to match the cheese. Ray was tall, charismatic and a bit of a perfectionist. We'd sometimes run through 15 beers over the course of three hours to find the six that were right for the cheeses. It was the very definition of a dirty job that someone had to do. The bar manager, bartender and I would be very happy and very done for the day by the time we finished. Ray of course would be happily in high gear still, ready for the next task.

After Ray passed, I began doing most of my beer and cheese events with Maggie Fuller, a graduate of the UC Davis Brewmasters program and a key member of the team at 12% Imports. She was also a passionate advocate of saisons as a year round beverage and, as if to prove it, she introduced me to two of her brands, Hof Ten Dormaal and Stillwater. At that point I truly got it. Hof Ten Dormaal, a tiny brewery based in Tildonk Belgium, has three standard varieties, Blonde, Amber, and Dark. Also, they have one brewed with wild yeast and several that are aged in various wine and spirits barrels. 

At that point, I realized the versatility of these farmhouse ales. They were once brewed for farmhands to drink on their breaks before water purification made it safe. With farmhands now hydrating with water and saving beer till happy hour or some such, brewers began moving away from light, and low alcohol varieties and the results were absolutely stunning. With its combination of yeasty textures and savory flavors, the Hof Ten Dormaal Amber is one of my favorite beers.

With Stillwater, things went to another level altogether. It's the label of a gypsy brewer named Brian Sturmke, who fell in love with saisons on a trip to Belgium and returned to Baltimore determined to put his individual stamp on them. These beers are well suited for extrinsic elements and Sturmke found the right ones. 

His Cellar Door is brewed with white sage. Of Love and Regret has lavender and chamomile. Debutante (not exactly a saison but a Biere de Garde, for you purists) has heather, hyssop and honeysuckle. Existent has roasted malts, which gives it a dark color and it features plummy overtones with hints of smoke and dark fruit as if someone made a Cotes du Rhone into a beer.

Yeah, with a variety of flavors and aromas like that, I would be dumb not to drink saisons all year round. And every now and then I stop into d.b.a, which soldiers on under new ownership, and have a Saison Dupont just to toast the memory of where my love affair with this dynamic style of beer began.

The Author:

Martin Johnson is a beer buyer and merchandising manager for Westside Market East Village in New York City.When not selling or drinking beer he writes about jazz and beer for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate, beer for Eater and about a variety of cultural and culinary topics for The Root.

The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ora Media, LLC, its affiliates, or its employees.

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