One of my favorite beer styles, and one of the least understood, is a crisp Belgian ale known as saison. It has its roots in the southern, French-speaking part of Belgium (Wallonia) and was first brewed over a century ago at the farms of the region. Traditionally, saison was a brown ale produced for the farmhands by the farmers as a means of sustenance during the physically intense growing and harvesting season. What the laborers needed was a thirst-quenching, nutritious, and calorie-providing beverage that would keep production high (and also keep from spoiling) during this most demanding part of the year. The farmers faced a challenge: because brewing in warm weather was out of the question due to lack of refrigeration (the result would otherwise be explosive fermentation), they needed to be able to brew a breed of beer at the end of winter that would last through October while keeping in mind refreshing qualities. I love saison for the same reason the Wallonian farmers did: it hits the spot on the hottest of summer days without sacrificing body. It’s also a godsend for pairing with food. More US craft breweries have taken an interest in this once-archaic style lately, and it’s no mystery as to why.
An Instant Pairing Success
Originally intended to be served as food, saison has evolved to be served with food. Garret Oliver, brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewing and author of The Brewmaster’s Table writes, “if I were forced to choose one style to drink with every meal for the rest of my life, saison would have to be it.” The sheer versatility of saison in pairing is due to its crisp carbonation, acidity, powerful aroma, bitterness, and an earthy backbone. Dishes plentiful in warm spices will pair incredibly well with the saison’s aromatics, as will salads with sweet ingredients (I’m thinking goat cheese and apple or pear and pecan) due to saison’s acidity. I’ve never tried it, but I imagine that it would be an unbeatable match for rich and spicy Latin cuisine as well (try cilantro and pepper-heavy Mexican dishes). As far as cheese, saison’s earthiness and carbonation make it the perfect complement to rich Camemberts. I’ve paired Ommegang Hennepin with Herve Mons Camembert, and the result was magic. The mushroomy quality of the Camembert married with the funk of the Hennepin which simultaneously brought out the peppery quality of the beer. The more I think about saison and food, the more creative pairings come to mind.
From Wallonia to Southeast Pennsylvania
My first saison of this year is Helios, a local interpretation from Victory Brewing Co. of Downingtown, PA. A year-rounder, this bright golden ale is crisp, aromatic and flavorful; I love to re-visit it each year when the weather warms. Its name serves as an homage to its agricultural history when the farmhands would drink saison under the very Sun which brought the beverage’s ingredients to life. Victory offers a colorful description of Helios on the bottle’s label, and notes that they employ an imported Belgian yeast strain in fermenting the beer which lends zesty and peppery aromatics despite no deliberate addition of spices. This characteristic is a hallmark of Belgian ales and very important to saison. An explosive spicy bouquet is the first thing I look for in evaluating an example of the style. So how did Helios stack up to classic Belgian saisons? Here’s my tasting notes:
In the glass, Helios is a hazy dark golden color with an impressive rocky head and substantial lacing. Visually it is as remarkable as any Belgian great. Nowadays, saisons have generally the same appearance as Helios with a few exceptions (black saisons are popping up here and there). As I mentioned previously, they were originally dark ales, but owing to French influence they became lighter in color. The aromatics are overall malty and fruity, with notes of clove, cherry, lemon zest, a biscuity yeast scent lingering. It is medium-bodied, crisp and malt-forward in the taste. Helios is dominated by a fresh ginger character and a rush of spice in the finish. Hop bitterness is low. Its great drinkability stems from not only the body but a well-hidden 7.5% ABV. This particular bottle that I enjoyed was a major improvement from a batch I tasted last year; the aroma exhibited much more the traditional Belgian characteristics that I was hoping for.
Helios and The American Saison
I’ve mentioned in earlier posts that I’m fairly critical of American takes on Belgian styles; the majority of them fail to mimic the classic examples. Perhaps it’s the old walls of the monasteries and brewhouses, the well-weathered brewing equipment, or the yeast indigenous to the brewing environment, but something tends to be missing. Helios seems to straddle the line between a rival to the Belgian greats and another ordinary American replica. It certainly has improved since earlier batches and visually is without flaw, but I think it could stand to exhibit a little more of that great funky Belgian yeast quality as well as a more powerful spicy aroma (my lowest marks were in the area of scent where my expectations are highest). It also really shines in the areas of carbonation and flavor complexity which makes it an excellent choice for experimenting with food pairing. I think that out of all of the Belgian styles being replicated in the US, saison seems to be brewed the closest to authentic Belgian examples, and Helios is no imposter. Other great American saisons include Yards Saison and Ommegang Hennepin (both local). However, Helios will always be a reliable selection and I hope Victory continues to brew this beer year-round.
A few other noteworthy details about Helios by Victory:
- Brewery/location: Victory Brewing Compant; Downingtown, PA (29 mi. from Philadelphia)
- Name/style/ABV: Helios; Saison, 7.5%
- Availability: Year-round
- Serving temp. and glassware: 55F; tulip
- Pairing suggestion: Cheese – camembert; salads featuring apple or pear; many Indian, Mexican, Cuban dishes
- Standout quality/area(s) for improvement: Stellar appearance; great body and carbonation. Needs to better showcase Belgian yeast aromatics.
- Bold statement: Nothing bold to say either way this time. A hell of a saison, though.
- My BeerAdvocate rating/BA community rating: A-/B+
Helios label borrowed from examiner.com