Saison might have been the first beer style that made me go “whoa.” I had drank a lot of American craft styles, such as Ambers, Browns, Stouts, Pale Ales and IPAs, but hadn’t ventured into the Belgian styles yet. I think my first Saison was probably Ommegang’s “Hennepin” or Boulevard’s “Tank 7.” Once I got my hands on one, I was obsessed. It almost immediately became my favorite beer style (for a time, at least). To this day, it is still my favorite style of beer to have with food. People ask me all the time what my favorite style of beer is, and my standard answer is always “it depends.” Conditions include the weather, what I’m eating, what my mood is, what else I’ve had, plans I have for the rest of the day, etc. But as far as favorite beer with food? Saison is an easy choice for me.
There are several reasons why Saison works so well with food. For one, it’s highly carbonated, so it helps to scrub the palate and prepare your taste buds for the next bite. This is especially handy with fattier foods. Secondly, Saisons typically have a very wide range of flavors, especially from the yeast. This provides lots of opportunities to either do comparison or contrasting pairings since there’s lot of flavors to choose from. Saisons are agile enough to stand up to big plates as well as to play nice with lighter dishes. Some of my favorite pairings with Saison are Pad Thai, mussels, shellfish, turkey (great with Thanksgiving dinner) and “Humboldt Fog” cheese from Cypress Grove Chevré. In fact, when it comes to cheese, Saison will go with just about anything, especially soft goat cheeses. In general, if I don’t know exactly what to pair with a dish, I’ll normally grab a bottle of Saison. It may not end up being the best pairing, but it is normally a pretty good one.
What differentiates Saison from other beers is mainly it’s yeast. Aromas and flavors from the yeast include fruity (especially citrus), spicy (normally peppery), floral, and earthy. Some versions will also have notes of leather, barnyard and horse blanket (Yum). Those examples usually have a form of Brettanomyces in them. Brett isn’t technically a wild yeast, but it’s not in the realm of standard ale or lager yeasts either, they’re a category all by themselves. If you’re unfamiliar with Brett, try the Brett Saison from Boulevard or a bottle of Orval that has a couple months of aging on it.
Saison should also be very dry. The dryness helps with refreshment, and makes the beer more drinkable (or as the Belgians say, it helps with “digestibility”). Saison yeasts are highly attenuative and not too flocculent, which usually go hand in hand. For our yeast, we used Farmhouse Saison strain (#291) from our local provider, Inland Island. The description from their website states: “A dynamic strain that produces a wide range of phenols and esters. Notes of strawberry, hay, and spice. This yeast leaves the finish slightly tart and with an excellent mouth feel.” Learn more about Inland Isalnd at inlandislandyeast.com
Saison originates from Wallonia, a western part of Belgium that borders France, and would be served to farm hands as they helped in the field during harvest time. In fact, Saison is French for “season,” The drink would be for refreshment as well as sustenance. Nothing says safety like alcohol and heavy machinery! The original Saison was rustic and normally used whatever was leftover in the barn as ingredients. Aside from barley and wheat, it wouldn’t be uncommon to find ingredients like rye or spelt. The beers were also much lower in alcohol percentage so that way the workers could be (mostly) functional.
To keep with the working tradition of Saison, we named ours after Boxer, the horse in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. (The book was written in 1945, but SPOILER ALERT!!!) The book is a satire about the Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as events before and after. Boxer represents the working class, and his motto is that he can always “work harder.” Once he thinks that he will be better off after the Revolution, he can’t get rid of the idea and always wants to work harder to support the cause. After the Battle of the Windmill, Boxer is injured but continues working. He collapses one day, and the pigs sell their most loyal worker to a glue factory (lying to the other animals that he’s being sent to a veterinarian) in exchange for whiskey (even though the 5th commandment of “Animalism” is that no animal shall drink alcohol). It was a not so subtle example of the pig’s hypocrisy and how much they really value the other animals on the farm. Poor Boxer, indeed. I don’t think the farmers in Wallonia treated their workers in the same disregard, but I really enjoy the book and wanted to name our Saison after a character, and I found Boxer to be the most sympathetic figure.
The earliest version of our Boxer Saison on a homebrew scale was brewed on 8/3/2011. Looking back at that original batch, there’s a lot of similarities when it comes to recipe. We still use Belgian Pilsner, Vienna, White Wheat, Rye and Dextrose, although the Vienna and Dextrose percentages have decreased and the rye percentage has gone up. The wheat and pilsner are almost the exact same percentage as they were 4.5 years ago. When it comes to hopping, we still do two additions of Styrian Goldings and do it at the same times as we did as when we were homebrewers. One change we did do was lower the OG and ABV. When we were homebrewers, this beer typically went over 8% abv due to the larger dextrose addition. Boxer is still on the high end of modern day Saison in terms of alcohol, but is a touch more sessionable now. The final stats are 7.2% ABV, 30 IBU and 5 SRM.
Boxer has an excellent citrus kick up front, balanced out by peppery spiciness coming in the middle and finishing with a slight citrus like tartness (not sourness). The rye and spicy phenolics play along very nicely to create a complex spiciness. I feel the rye comes out more as the beer warms up. Boxer has a moderate bitterness and finishes very dry, leaving you to want another sip as much as Boxer (the horse) wanted to work.
Saison is still one of my favorite styles to enjoy, and I think one of the reasons is that there’s so much interpretation involved when it comes to Saison. Since every farmer was probably making theirs a little differently, it’s hard to pinpoint certain producers as the epitome of the style. I think doing so would be a disservice to all other producers who may be a little more unique. I believe we’ve captured the spirit of Saison in Boxer, and feel we’ve made a tasty homage to a fictional horse in a satirical novel. I hope you will enjoy Boxer and Hop On!