Summer Fling

By Peter Bailey.

Bitter beer is better beer. I still believe that. But isn’t summer the perfect time for a fling with something bubbly and bright?

In Portland recently, I found my eyes wandering down the bar, away from my beloved hop bombs to the subtler charms of wheat beer and the beer style du jour: saison. After a couple evenings of high-alcohol, heavily-hopped Oregon beers, my palate cried out for a break, and saison was there to help me make it through the night.

Like India pale ale, saison was a fading old European style revived recently by adventurous American brewers. Saison, or farmhouse ale, originates from Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, where farmers brewed a beer seasonally for thirsty harvest workers. Like Beaujolais nouveau wine, saison was a refreshing, light and lively beer consumed soon after brewing. Modern versions are quite diverse, with few hard and fast rules, but they are generally fruity, bubbly and low in hop bitterness.

In Portland, the local alt-weekly declared a saison the 2013 beer of the year: The Commons Brewery’s Urban Farmhouse Ale. A friend and I bought a bottle and snuck it back to the hotel where we drank it away from the judgmental eyes of our fellow hop heads. An iconoclast in a city of iconoclasts, The Commons’ brewer Mike Wright calls his beers “yeast-forward.” He’s right, the malt and hops in this ale play backup to the spicy, fruity notes created by the saison yeast.

Portland writer Adrienne So wondered recently in Slate if the “hops arms race” in craft brewing might be alienating people who don’t like bitter beer. She might have a point as more subtle but delicious styles of beer tend to be overlooked in the rush to find the biggest, boldest beer on the block. Garret Oliver, Brooklyn Brewery’s brewmaster, complained a few years ago that a brewer boasting about the huge amounts of hops in his beer was akin to a chef boasting about how much salt he put in his soup.

In Edmonton, Alley Kat was once again ahead of the trend, releasing a spring seasonal that focused on the magic that yeast can bring to beer. Their Full Moon Belgian Pale Ale was a revelation, a clever twist on an old favourite — brewing their hoppy Full Moon Pale Ale with Belgian yeast to create a unique hybrid with a distinctly fruity saison flavour. A Canadian marriage: French-Belgian style merged with the brash, hoppy style of the Pacific Northwest. I wish the happy couple bonne chance!

And IPA, don’t worry, I just can’t quit you. Our northern summers are fleeting and soon enough I’ll be jonesing for your big hops again.

Summer fling six pack

Many Canadian craft brewers are giving saison and other less hop-centric styles a try. Summer also means the release of beers focused on fun, full of fruit and aiming to please.

TractorLe Trou du Diable: La Saison du Tracteur, Shawinigan, QC

One assumes a Quebec brewer knows how to brew this style. One sip of La Saison du Tracteur and you know it’s true. This sunny meadow in a pint glass will have you humming Sting’s ‘Fields of Gold’ in no time. You’ve been warned. Tart, sweet, effervescent and just a touch funky.

HalfpintHalf Pints: Saison de la Ceinture Fléchée, Winnipeg

Half Pints gives a nice nod to Manitoba’s francophone culture with this saison with a Métis arrow sash on the label. Brewed with Belgian and French yeast and barley and wheat, this is a fruity, spicy, almost flintyale sure to please your inner
coureurs de bois.

summerAlley Kat: Summer Squeeze Grapefruit Ale, Edmonton

I’ve served Alley Kat’s summer seasonal at a couple of gatherings and it has been the first beer to disappear. Everyone loves this beer. Made with whole grapefruits and extract, it’s not too sweet for the geek, but fruity enough for the rookie. This beer needs a home on your deck.

GoseRiderWild Rose: Gose Rider, Calgary

Kudos to Wild Rose for reviving gose, a rare and unusual beer style. Gose is a wheat beer from Leipzig, Germany made with coriander and salt. Wild Rose used Belgian yeast with wheat and barley malt, and spiced with coriander and sea salt. A complex, slightly sour yet light and lively beer.

ginjaGranville: Ginja Ninja Ginger Beer, Vancouver

Ginger beer that’s really beer — an interesting concept! The ginger in Granville’s summer seasonal is deceptive, sneaking up on your palate (like a ninja, one presumes). I like that this beer pairs well with food, with sushi and spicy Asian food topping the list of great partners.

gothicYukon: Belgian Gothic Saison, Whitehorse

The Canadian Arctic is not what comes to mind when one thinks about saison. But Yukon went all in, literally, to make a convincing summer beer. Starting with Belle Saison yeast and rye, wheat, and barley malts plus acidulated malt for a touch of sourness, then added cracked peppercorns and chopped oranges and grapefruits. A delightful northern beauty.

Peter Bailey remains a hop head but is prone to wandering. He tweets as @Libarbarian.