'Tis the Saison to be merry...
Added: Friday, November 6th 2020
With the holiday period fast approaching, what better way to celebrate than with a bottle of beer appropriately called With the Best Wishes of Dupont Brewery – in French, Avec les Bons Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont.
The brewery is based in the Hainaut region of Belgium and it’s put a once-obscure beer style known as Saison firmly on the map – to such an extent that brewers in other countries are now mimicking the style.
Saison, as the name implies, started life as seasonal beers. They were brewed by farmers who also had small breweries and used grain and hops from the fields to fashion a beer brewed in the winter months and stored until the summer. The beers were then quaffed by farm labourers to refresh themselves at harvest time while the farmers and their families drank them with their meals.
Dupont has been brewing since 1844 and is based on a former farm and brewery. Louis Dupont bought the site in 1920 and it’s still run by his descendants. As well as the 9.5 per cent Christmas beer – now available all year round – the brewery’s flagship is Saison Dupont (6.5 per cent). At a time when so many beers are either heavily hopped or over-hopped, it’s a great pleasure to sup a beer where rich malt balances the hops – in this case East Kent Goldings and Styrian Goldings.
Close by, the Brasserie à Vapeur – Steam Brewery – at Pipaix produces a wide range of Saisons, with the brewing equipment driven by a venerable steam engine dating from 1885. The brewery specialises in producing beers with “botanicals” and the end results are distinctly different to those from Dupont. The main beer, Saison de Pipaix (6.5 per cent), has black pepper, ginger, orange, curacao and star anise added to the malts and hops. This recalls the ancient tradition of farmers using ingredients from the fields or
spices brought to the Low Countries by traders.
The Silly Brewery causes mirth and there are tales of visitors getting a touch of the silly walks after a visit to the farm brewery in the village of Silly, which takes its name from the local river, the Sil. But the beers are seriously brewed in attractive farm buildings dating from 1850 and run by descendants of the founding family.
The main beer is Saison Silly (5 per cent) that has a vinous fruitiness and a tartness that’s the result of two beers, one pale and one dark, being blended, with the dark version aged for around a year in a steel tank.
Saison is a Wallonian speciality but in recent years it has crossed the border into the Flemish-speaking regions of the country. The brewery that has given greater awareness to the style in Flemish Flanders is Hof ten Dormaal in Tildonk, just a few miles from the historic brewing city of Leuven.
In the finest traditions of Saison, it’s brewed on a farm run by André Janssens and his sons. They have planted their own barley and hops close to the brew house and use them in a wide range of beers, including Saison (5.8 per cent).
The raw ingredients are re-cycled after brewing as feed for horses and other animals on the farm. Hof ten Dormaal is surrounded by fields where endive is grown: this is a major endive area and André adds the plant to one of his beers. He also has a major barrel-ageing programme, storing beers in wine, cognac and whisky casks.
A more recent arrival on the Saison scene is De Glazen Toren brewery at Erpe-Mere. The 6.5 per cent beer comes in a paper-wrapped 75cl bottle and it’s one of the most delicious beers I have tasted for some time, a symphony of rich malt, spicy hops and tart fruit.
An added pleasure of all the Belgian Saisons is that they are bottle-conditioned and stronger versions will improve with age. Closer to home, I have tasted a Saison from Wiper & True in Bristol that’s fermented with the wild yeast Brettanomyces and is tart, tangy and quenching.
Avec les Bons Voeux!
•First published in BEER, winter 2020.