As the variety of craft beer styles increases each year, the Brewers Association releases updates to its annual beer style guidelines. Older styles are refreshed; completely new styles emerge; and once-extinct styles are resurrected.
American craft breweries have been redefining traditional styles for decades, often pumping up the flavors to sate the palates of an insatiable desire to be bigger and better than that which came before us.
Take the American India Pale Ale, for example. The original British versions, with their earthy hop varieties, seem downright mild in light of the hop bombs produced in the United States these days.
When this year’s changes were released in March, I was happy to see a new category for Specialty Saison, a broad style encompassing much of what U.S. craft breweries are using to experiment with this classic beer.
Just one sentence early on in the style description encapsulates so much: “There may be quite a variety of characters in these beers which differ from classic saisons.”
Because “classic saisons” were historically brewed in the spring in southern Belgium to help sustain the crop workers in the summer, they were typically simple beers, highlighting the marriage of hops, grains, water and yeast.
“Specialty Saison” is a response to the creations that have been making their way into taprooms in craft breweries across America in recent years.
Specialty saisons shun the notion of a “purity law,” allowing a wide variety of additional flavors — spices, herbs, flowers, fruits, vegetables, fermentable sugars and carbohydrates, special yeasts of all types, wood aging and more — and the result is a style ripe for experimentation.
Seattle’s Urban Family Brewing, a new addition to the Lower Alabama beer landscape, is one brewery that’s taking full advantage of this blank canvas. It calls itself a “farmhouse” brewery, but it’s hard to imagine a farm in the Seattle neighborhood it calls home. The distinction lies more in the brewer’s heavy focus on saisons, which are often referred to as “farmhouse ales.”
Urban Family’s More With Honey, a saison brewed with honey and spices, is a great example of an American specialty saison. This beer finishes nice and dry and exhibits the distinctive character of Belgian saisons, yet the spices enter the fold and meld quite nicely with the base beer. Aromas and flavors are ripe with complexity, exhibiting characteristics that range from lemon and apricot to peppercorn and herbal, floral and grassy.
Other breweries take this notion to a whole new level, going so far as to forage for their additional ingredients. North Carolina’s Fonta Flora Brewing Co. is just one example. The brewer at this small craft brewery in Morganton sets out to pick what the local climate has to offer, including stinging nettles, wild dandelions, beets, heritage corn, oysters and so much more. Many of these beers use a mixed fermentation, a blend of brewer’s yeasts and bacteria, as well as extensive barrel-aging. Simply put, Fonta Flora’s beers fit the ever-so-loose mold of a specialty saison quite nicely.
Urban Family’s offerings are available in Lower Alabama in limited quantities. Fonta Flora, unfortunately, requires a trip to western North Carolina.
Dan Murphy is a Certified Cicerone® and the founding brewer at Fairhope Brewing Co. Follow him on Instagram @Grand_Krewe and on Twitter @Beer_Man_Dan.