CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With the onset of summer heat, it only makes sense to make this episode of my Belgian beer series about Belgian farmhouse ales. These beers represent the culture of beer and brewing of old agrarian Europe.
The southern provinces of Belgium are collectively called Wallonia, where French is spoken, so many farmhouse ales are typically called "Saison," French for "season." The Saison-style farmhouse ale is typically light and effervescent with a musty barnyard aroma and a distinctly spicy-peppery finish often with lemon or generally citrusy notes. Most farmhouse ales are bottled and corked and pop and pour with champagnelike carbonation.
The origin of Saison is said to be a byproduct of agrarian life in these parts of Belgium where wheat and barley were plentiful. Farmers would save a portion of the fall harvest to make beer to put up during the winter and to be drunk during the planting and plowing season. These beers were typically light and refreshing but hardy enough to provide nourishment.
The standard-bearer of the Saison style is made by Brasserie DuPont, simply called Saison DuPont (old provision). DuPont is one of the few farm breweries to have survived World War II without having its brewery equipment confiscated by the Nazis and melted down for ammunition or guns. They managed to bury all of the equipment in the nearby fields before the Nazis could figure out there was a brewery on the farm. (Maybe that's why Saison DuPont has a distinct earthiness to this day!)
Another interesting brewery and beer is La Brasserie à Vapeur (steam brewery). This place has to be one of the oldest operating brew houses in the world and a labor of love undertaken by its current owner, Jean Luis Ditz, a history teacher and beer lover.
A few times a month, Jean Luis fires up the wood-fired steam boiler, and brews a batch of his famous Saison de Pipaix, named for the small town where the farmhouse brewery is located. Jean Luis also uses the wood smoke he generates for smoking trout, meats and cheese.
Wallonia is also home to several small artisanal brewers that specialize in making quirky farmhouse beer styles such as dark Winter Saison or a more traditional, stronger, French-style farmhouse ale called Bier de Garde (beer to keep).
Many of these Wallonian beers are dosed with just a hint of coriander and sometimes spices like star anise are used in varying degrees. Farmhouse yeast strains tend to be very hardy and are likely an offshoot of wine yeast from the nearby Champagne region in France; these strains produce remarkably clean, spicy beers at very warm fermentation temperatures. Many brewers of this style actually age freshly bottled beers in a hot room to give them a characteristic phenolic bite along with high carbonation levels.
Unfortunately, authentic Belgian farmhouse brands do not make it to West Virginia but are readily available in places such as Columbus and Pittsburgh. DuPont is usually easy to find but Pipaix is much harder to find.
Another rarity, but worth the hunt, are any beers by Brasserie Fantôme. A really decent American-made farmhouse ale is brewed in Cooperstown, N.Y., by Ommegang. The beer is called Hennepin.
Saison-style farmhouse ales do very well at the dinner table pairing best with creamy/fatty/cheesy dishes. Brewer, beer/food advocate and author Garret Oliver once commented that if he were on a desert island and had only one beer to choose, it would be Saison DuPont -- and he's the head brewer at Brooklyn Brewery!
For more on the craft of beer, see Rich Ireland's "Beers to You" blog at thegazz.com.